Characterization: Its Importance
Success in characterization is the measure of a novelist’s greatness, and George Eliot is with the very greatest in this respect. Among the excellencies which distinguish the works of George Eliot, one is her power of characterization. She brings before us a variety of characters who not only bear the essential stamp of reality, but each one of whom is endowed with his or her individual traits of speech and manner, and his own moral quality. Says David Cecil, “It is in the treatment of character that George Eliot’s more active intellect gives her the most conspicuous advantage over the typical Victorians.”
Characters From “Humble and Rustic Life”
George Eliot, like a lot of other women writers, depended largely upon her own experience. She kept close to that which she knew intimately—namely the experiences of her girlhood. It is to this experience and to her life in the English Midlands that she returns again and again for her material. Although in her later novels, George Eliot does draw characters belonging to the upper class, she derives her strength and recognition from the portrayal of, what Wordsworth calls, characters from “humble and rustic life.” Wordsworth influenced her profoundly. She echoes Wordsworth’s interest in rustic life and uses the dialect spoken by the humble rustics to make her portrayal of character more realistic.
Use of Personal Experience
George Eliot‘s full scale characters are all drawn from her family circle, close friends and acquaintances. This is clearly noticeable in her early novels. The male persons in the first novels, Scenes of Clerical Life are portraits of real people whom she had been acquainted with or heard about. She gives us the thoughts of the ordinary, humble, men and women she had known, and sets them against a very unromantic background. They are neither extraordinarily silly nor extraordinarily wicked, nor extraordinarily wise; their eyes are neither deep and liquid with sentiment, nor sparkling with suppressed witticisms; they have probably had no hair-breadth escapes or thrilling adventures; their brains are certainly not pregnant with genius, and their passions have not manifested themselves at all after the fashion of a volcano. They are simply men of complexions more or less muddy, whose conversation is more or less bold and disjointed. Yet these commonplace people, many of them, have a conscience, and have felt the sublime prompting to do the painful right; they have their unspoken sorrows and their sacred joys; their hearts have perhaps gone out towards their first born, and they have mourned over the irreclaimable dead.
Power of Psychological Portrayal
George Eliot looks into the minds of these common people and reveals their thinking, feeling, sufferings and frustrations. Their concern with “the sublime prompting to do the painful right” is illustrated by the story of Maggie Tulliver and is echoed in Romola, Dorothea, Felix Holt and in all her major characters. “The writer who could visualise for us the hedonistic Tito; the fine old puritan, Dr. Lyons; the erratic Gwendolen, the steadfast Mary Garth; the commonplace Fred Vincy and the brilliant Lydgate; the rough uncultured Bob Jakin and the polished scholar Casaubon dealing justice to each, fairly appraising their merits and no less keenly exposing their weaknesses, was a writer with no ordinary power of psychological portrayal. Nor is she a whit inferior in the subtlety of her method, as is evidenced by the delicate nuances in the characterization of Mary Garth and Rosamund Vincy, and Romola.” —(
Such is her realism in the presentation of character, that after the publication of Scenes of Clerical Life in 1857, her readers of Warwickshire were astonished to find that the characters of the novel were people they had known and who were their neighbours. In the Sad Fortunes of Rev. Amos Barton, George Eliot reveals her sympathy for common people by making her hero, a man whose only noticeable quality is that he is superlatively middling. She has sketched the unheroic hero from her memory of the Rev. John Gwyther, Curate of Cheverels Colon between the years 1838-41. A host of minor characters have been portrayed masterly. George Eliot has characterised them realistically and “they are seen clearly, objectively, humorously and inspite of their moral and intellectual deficiencies, with respect and sympathy.” George Eliot reveals the individual traits of these spokesmen of the small community of Shepperton. Mrs. Hackit, whose character is based on fond recollections of her mother, is a shrewd and good hearted woman. She is a good farmer’s wife and manages the dairy, like Mrs. Evans, successfully. Mr. Hackit is a pleasant gentleman. He, like the author’s father, Robert Evans, is “A shrewd, substantial man, whose advice about crops is always worth listening to and who is too well off to want to borrow money.”
She had been greatly influenced and dominated by her father, and Adam Bede and Caleb Garth are strongly reminiscent of Robert Evans, the upright workman. He, like Adam Bede, was well-known for his trustworthiness, high character and extraordinary strength. He had an immense knowledge of plantations, timber and mines. Robert Evans’ excellencies had brought him to the notice of Sir Francis Newdigate and the relationship between her father and his employer is the source of the account of friendship between Adam Bede and Arthur Donnithorne. Regarding the character of Dinah Morris in Adam Bede George Eliot said: “The character of Dinah grew out of my recollections of my aunt who is a very small, black eyed woman, and (as I was told, for I never heard her preach) very vehement in her style of preaching.” This aunt, Mrs. Elizabeth Evans, was a Methodist preacher of great saintliness. Like Dinah Morris, she was known for her charity in Derbyshire. According to Gey Roslyn, “In the novel the descriptions of Dinah are descriptive also of
, the heroine of fact, and the heroine of fiction are alike in walking, talking, dress, occupation and the fortunes of life.” Elizabeth
George Eliot spent the first thirty years of her life in the
Midlands where she had enough opportunity to study the mannerisms and life of the lower classes. We have it in her own words that she had lived among craftsmen, farmers, tradesmen, mechanics, farriers, butchers, gardeners and innkeepers, and as we glance over her principal characters, we are assured of the fact that her sympathies lay with them. Her characters are all modelled on the memories of her life in the Midlands. They belong to the various professions and occupations that George Eliot had been familiar with. Adam Bede is a carpenter, Dinah Morris works in a factory. Hetty Sorel is a pretty but vain dairymaid, Silas Marner is a linen weaver, Maggie Tulliver is the daughter of a miller, Felix Holt is a watchmaker, and Esther Lyon is a governess. She never-forgets the low and the humble. Romola is based on fifteenth century Florentine life, yet George Eliot has filled page after page with conversations of the commonfolk. According to Henry James, “She is unmistakably a painter of bourgeois life as Thackeray was a painter of life of drawing-rooms.”
When we glance over the whole range of George Eliot’s characters, we come to the conclusion that she was exceptional in the portrayal of female characters. One of her male characters, Tito, in Romola, has been called a woman in disguise, so profound was her understanding of the female mind and heart. The rendering of Hetty Sorel in Adam Bede is a triumph. Hetty Sorel is a beautiful, vain, dairymaid who hopes to gain a higher place in society by using her beauty. Says John Bennett, “George Eliot portrays with insight and convincing truth Hetty’s physical charms and her shallow, pleasure-loving, hurtless nature, without ill-will, but without any strength of purpose to withstand temptation.”
Dinah Morris is one person who penetrates through her surface beauty and perceives the weakness of Hetty’s character and realises that she is not equipped with necessary qualities to face the ordeals, of life. Realising the shallowness of the vain, pretty dairymaid she tries to prepare her for the possibility of pain and trouble in her Life. Leslie Stephen claims that Hetty is ‘thoroughly charming.’ George Eliot has been criticised for crucifying the pretty, vain dairy-maid. “It is almost as though Hetty’s very prettiness is scored up as a bad mark against her, comments Walter Allen. There have been biographical surmises that the plain looking George Eliot was punishing herself through the sins of the beautiful Hetty. In her novels there are heavy, ironical paragraphs describing the beauty of women like Hetty, and the havoc they caused in the lives of men. Hetty suffers because she yields to temptation. This is true not only of Hetty but also of Maggie Tulliver, Mrs. Transome and Gwendolen Harleth who also suffer for their moral transgressions. They all testify to the author’s firm belief in the disastrous effect of sin.
Minor Characters: Mrs. Poyser
Her minor characters are drawn from various walks of life in the
Midlands. We meet farmers, clergymen, gardeners, school masters, carpenters, milk-maids and innkeepers. After reading Adam Bede we feel as if we know Mrs. Poyser, Martin Poyser, the Revered Irwine, Mrs. Irwine, his mother, Lisbeth Bede, the mother of Adam and Seth Bede, Bartle Massey, Mr. Cragg, and Joshua Rann intimately. Of George Eliot’s minor characters Mrs. Poyser stands out foremost. The most interesting characteristics of Mrs. Poyser are those which George Eliot’s mother also had. J.W. Cross remarks: “His (Robert Evans) second wife was a woman with an unusual amount of natural force; a shrewd practical person, with a dash of the Mrs. Poyser vein in her.” Mrs. Evans, like Mrs. Poyser, was a successful dairy women, housekeeper and mother. She was a devoted wife with a sharp tongue which subdued her husband, children and servants. Mrs. Poyser is the wittiest of all George Eliot’s characters. She pervades the novel Adam Bede and is well-known for her sharp tongue, but a kind heart. Says Charles S. Olcott, “Mrs. Poyser, whose practical common sense is revealed in a succession of lightning flashes of pithy aphorisms and quick repartee, has a place by the side of Sam Weller among the most delightfully humorous characters of our literature.”
George Eliot admitted that there was a great deal of herself in Maggie Tulliver, the central figure in The Mill On the Floss. Many of Marian’s own experiences and emotions have been woven into the character of Maggie. In Arbury Farm, Marian would follow Isaac, her brother who was three years older than her, adoringly, and was miserable when he was away from her. Maggie like her creator adores her brother Tom and craves for his love.
Mary was a sensitive, passionate child, like Maggie, and she thirsted for life, beauty and knowledge. The description of the childhood of Maggie is unique. Every characteristic of her own childhood appears also in Maggie, for example, her own love for music. Love for music is one of her strongest bonds with Philip Wakem. Says Walter Allen, “As a rendering of the growth of a girl from early childhood to young womanhood, a girl marked by intellectual distinction, a generously ardent nature and a strong capacity for feeling, Maggie has never been surpassed.”
Evolution of Character
The characters in George Eliot’s novels grow and develop as the story proceeds. They are round characters. We behold them at the end of the book different from what they were at the beginning. In certain cases they become more hardened and more debased than what they were before. One striking example of such character development is Tito Melema in Romola. The gradual downfall of Tito can very well be placed besides the debasement of Macbeth. We see in him the full representation of deterioration. He desires to get on in the world but falls a victim to the circumstances which are of his own making. Tito, who is a scholar, like Godfrey Cass (‘Silas Marner’) and Arthur Donnithorne (‘Adam Bede’), yields to his egotistic desires and commits base and cruel deeds.
George Eliot’s Clergy
George Eliot’s experience of painful conflicts from religious causes, accounts for her sympathetic delineation of clergymen. Her picture of clergy range from Savonorala, a Dominican friar, to Dinah Morris, a Methodist preacher. The Evangelical movement and the clash between old and new ways of worship had always interested George Eliot. As a novelist, George Eliot saw in the drama of Evangelicalism excellent material for a realistic portrayal of common life and this might have led her to write “Janet’s Repentance.” George Eliot portrays the Evangelical movement with all its good and bad, its hypocrisy and sincerity. Her admiration for saintly Evangelical characters can be seen in her early books. Mr. Tryan in ‘Janet’s Repentance’ and Dinah Morris in Adam Bede are such characters, portrayed realistically.
Her novels abound with simple-minded clergymen who unmoved by religious ‘dissent’, go about their parish duties and minister to the wants of the poor according to the tradition handed down by their ancestors. The clergy are not without their weaknesses as, for example, Mr. Irwine in Adam Bede, but despite such weaknesses they are treated with sympathy.
Mr. Farebrother in Middlemarch is a man of the world who plays for money, yet he has pity, tact and wisdom. “I don’t pretend to say that Farebrother is apostolic…….“ George Eliot contrasts the worldly, kindly Farebrother with the Evangelical Mr. Tyke, who is inhuman.
The Rustic Chorus
The novelist’s minor rustic characters, such as Mr. and Mrs. Hackit, Mrs. Patten, and Mrs. Poyser, Lisbeth Bede, Dolly, Mr. Winthrop, Macey, Mr. Craig, Bob Jakin, Britle Massey and a host of others, once met are difficult to forget. Through them George Eliot shows the upper class how the other half lives. Mrs. Poyser with her homely wit and genuine kindliness is masterly drawn. Her dialogues are scintillating with wisdom. To these minor characters of various professions she gives the realism which Lewes demanded in his article “Realism in Art: Recent German Fiction” in the
Review in which he insisted: “the merchant must have an air of the counting house, and an ostler must smell of the stables.” Westminster
The rustic characters in the early novels, specially, can be compared in their eccentricities and grotesqueries to the rustic characters of Thomas Hardy. The chorus of lively rustic characters plays an important part in her novels. According to Barbara Hardy, they contribute to the intensification of theme and character. “Apart from playing their minor roles in the action, the chorus is also the narrator and is important for making tragic statements for the author. The chorus throws the ordinary hero into relief, the relief of the frame and the relief of contrast.”
The rustic chorus comments on the protagonist and very often the reader comes to understand the protagonist better through the conversation among the chorus. The chorus is also responsible for providing to the readers information about the characters and their family history. In Silas Marner, through the famous scene at the ‘Rainbow Inn’ one gathers a great deal about the Raveloe gentry. We learn that in Raveloe the right opinion is the community opinion and the community speaks in one voice. We learn that Raveloe is a surprisingly homogenous society with no wide range of rank or wealth and the gentry of Raveloe are scarcely less native than the rustics, their lives are almost as confined and sequestered” (Walter Allen). The tragedy of the hero becomes the tragedy of the whole community and this brings the protagonist and the community together in a common bond, as we also see in the case of the Rev. Amos Barton and Rev. Mr. Gilfil in the Scenes of Clerical Life.
In Adam Bede the community of Hayslope plays the part of the chorus. At the twenty-first birthday celebrations of Captain Donnithorne, Mr. Poyser keeps referring with apprehensive irritation to the Squire, and the rumours about the mysterious tenant. All this reaches a climax when old Squire approaches the Poysers with a proposal and is routed by Mrs. Poyser. At the same feast the Captain announces that Adam is being given the position of the manager of the woods. Adam makes a fine speech but of much greater interest are the opinions of those present:
“Some of the women whispered that he didn’t show himself thankful enough, and seemed to speak as proud as could be; but most of the men were of opinion that nobody could speak more straightforward, and that Adam was as fine a chap as need to be.”
In Mill on the Floss even the minor characters are sketched with the same firmness and strength as the major ones. The Tullivers, Gleggs, Pullets and Bob Jakin are all individualised and distinct. The Dodsons are based on George Eliot’s recollection of her mother’s family, the “Pearsons”. Mr. Evans with all his strength of character was submissive to his second wife, Christina Pearson. She came from a yeoman family and her social position was better than her husband’s. Mrs. Evans was a superior woman, both socially and financially, and Robert Evans held her in awe. Her family no doubt are the prototypes of “the emmet like Dodsons.” The Dodson sisters have been drawn with George Eliot’s characteristic shrewd observation and humour. Each sister has her own distinct appearance, behaviour, thinking and mode of talking.
The characters of George Eliot’s novels are real, living breathing human beings. They are warm, full of vitality, with human desires and weaknesses. George Eliot was writing before Freud, yet her novels are rich in psychological analysis of character and motive. She not only penetrates to the inner depth of her characters but the characters are studied in relation to their environment. Her contribution to the English novel in the field of characterization is that she made it conscious of character on a deeper level.