Intellectualised the English Novel
George Eliot (1819-1880) is one of the greatest novelists of the Victorian age. “She stands at the gateway between the old novel and the new, no unworthy heir of Thackeray and Dickens and no unworthy forerunner of Hardy and Henry James.” She was essentially a novelist of intellectual life and her psychological insight into human motives and spring of action is deep and profound. She intellectualised the English novel and imparted to it moral fervour and ethical bias, which it had not yet possessed in the hands of Dickens and Thackeray. She contributed to the English novel an air of sobriety, sternness and seriousness which it had not attained in the hands of the early Victorian novelists. Adam Bede, Silas Marner, Middlemarch, Romola, Mill on the Floss, etc. are among her greatest novels.
Art of Plot-Construction
As David Cecil points out, “George Eliot did not care much for plot-construction, at least of the traditional kind; she was governed not by the story but by her idea. She worked out her plots in conformity with that ideal giving all kinds of jolts and jerks to the expectation of the readers.” Her plots were intended to follow not a standardised formula but what she conceived to be the logical development of that idea. Those strokes of fortune, coincidences, sudden inheritances, long lost wills, which were the stock-in-trade of the ordinary Victorian plot were invariably omitted by her from her novels. Hers are the “first novels which set out to give a picture of life wholly unmodified by those formulae of a good plot which the novel had taken over from comedy and romance. Her story is conditioned solely by the logical demands of situation or character; it ends sadly or happily, includes heroes or omits them, deals with the married or the unmarried according to as reason and observation lead her to think likely. In fact, the laws conditioning the form of George Eliot’s novels are the same laws that condition those of Henry James and Wells and Conrad and
Bennet. Hers are the first examples in English of the novel in its mature form; in them it structurally comes of age.” Arnold
Realism: Use of Early Memories
The early novels of George Eliot, Adam Bede, Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner are realistic and concrete in the presentation of the life of the
Midland counties of Warwickshire and Derbyshire, which she had intimately known. This particular region, with its life and characters, comes to life in these novels. When her novels were published without her feminine name it was speculated that the famous Mr. Liggins must have written them, for no one save he was supposed to be intimately familiar with the surroundings of the Midlands so faithfully portrayed in the novels. Later on, when it was discovered that Mary Evans was the real author of those novels, all those who knew her were pleasantly surprised and congratulated her on such faithful delineation of the life of the Midlands. In these early novels, George Eliot freely took material for her novels from her own experience of life, from her personal memories and from the life and activities of her relatives and friends. In this way she showed that personal experience and memories could supply all the matter that a novelist needed. Therefore, realism and faithful portraiture of life and characters known to her are the hallmarks of these novels. Says Hugh Walker, “It is notorious that in the earlier novels George Eliot drew very freely on the stories of her memory. Scene after scene, character after character, in these novels has been identified with some place or person within the range of her early experience. Her mansions and cottages, her lanes and meadows, are those to which she had been accustomed to drive in childhood with her father, or over which she had rambled with her brother. Still more are the characters of her novels, the figures with whom she had been familiar, and almost in proportion to the familiarity is the frequency of their appearance. No other group was so often laid under contribution as her own family. Her father, her mother, her brother, her sister, her aunt, and herself, all appear in her pages.”
Her Later Works
In her later novels beginning with Romola and upto Daniel Deronda, she set aside her store of experience which she had almost exhausted in Adam Bede, Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner, and turned to political experience of other people (Felix Holt), problems of racial integration (Daniel Deronda) and presentations of life in
during the fifteenth century. “But when she left familiar grounds for unknown and untrodden fields, she faltered and failed, and it is only once again in Middlemarch that she could hold out a gleam of her former glory, for this novel, like her earlier work, is also a faithful picture of the life of the Midlands and of her people, such as the Garths and the Vinceys.” Florence
A Great Psychological Novelist
George Eliot is a psychological novelist. In her novels she lays bare the very souls of her characters. Like Browning, she attempted to represent the inner struggle of a soul, and to reveal the motives, impulses and hereditary influences which governed human action. David Cecil, rightly remarks that “She tried to pierce behind the show of things and to reveal the forces by which they are controlled.” She was a great analyser of motives. “Her mind was always active; experience set it immediately and instinctively analysing and generalising, to discovering why and how things happened. And when she turned her attention to the world around her, it was this analysis that started her creative imagination working.” (E.A. Baker) She was a rationalist and a philosophic thinker and she brought to bear on the novel a highly skilled intellect, a probing mind, and a searching analytic faculty. “If the novel is a mirror lighted up by the mind, it was of no small moment that the mind now brought to bear was one inured to philosophic ways of seeing. Her sense of responsibility deepened, and her novels grew more and more introspective and theoretic as time went on, until with the exhaustion of her earliest and most vivid impressions, they were that and nothing else, and in the last, Daniel Deronda, she built upon a scaffolding of abstract thought.” As a psychological novelist it was her endeavour to represent inner life. As W.L. Cross puts it, “All happenings, she showed, are but the meeting and the intermingling of courses of events that have their source in the inner history of mankind.”
Philosophised the Novel
Another great contribution of George Eliot to the novel is that she imparted seriousness, gravity, solemnity and loftiness to the novel. It was no longer an instrument merely of cheap entertainment, but in her hands it became a medium for the discussion of highly complicated philosophical and abstract thoughts. “Again and again it has been pointed out that fiction in her hands is no longer a mere entertainment; it strikes a note of seriousness and even of sternness; it is turned into a searching review of the gravest as well as the pleasantest aspect of human existence, reassuming the reflective and discursive rights and duties pertaining to the novel at its beginnings, without however sacrificing any of the creative and dramatic qualities that had developed in the intervening centuries.” —(E.A. Baker)
George Eliot was a moralist at heart, and “the tone of her novels is one of moral earnestness, and at times, in her later work, of an austere grimness.” Her novels are so many sermons for a vast congregation of readers who could not subscribe to Christian Codes. She was a sort of Moses to the Victorian Age, leading it to the promised Land of full intellectual, moral and political freedom, even though the results of its entering upon that inheritance have been similar to those that overtook the Jews after entering into
.” (Church) As a moralist, George Eliot laid great emphasis on the performance of one’s duty and on leading a life of virtue and righteousness. If a person failed to stick to these paths and deviated from the track of righteousness, he was likely to be swallowed up by the swirling waves of moral turpitude leading to his utter ruin, as in the case with Hetty in Adam Bede. A slip in conduct is likely to lead to serious consequences. Violation of moral laws brings utter ruin to her characters. Jordan
In George Eliot’s view every man’s character was in his own hands to be moulded into the right shape or a wrong one and she desired that man‘s full strength should be devoted to the right shape and form. “Activities were right insofar as they assisted you to be good, they were wrong in so far as they prevented you. And such activities as were neither right nor wrong were frivolous, unworthy of the attention of a serious person. She believed that the power which rules on high is just and moral. She was sure that, “those who live a virtuous life are essentially contented, that those who live a vicious life are essentially discontended. However well-meaning you might be or however lucky, she was sure that you cannot escape the consequences of your own actions, that your sins find you out, that the slightest slip will be visited on you, if not immediately then later.” —(David Cecil)
Art of Characterisation
According to Jerome Thale, George Eliot was interested not so much, “in the disintegration of society, the break-down of structures which seemed so large in mid-Victorian
, as in the delineation of character, particularly the inner man. Instead of concentrating her attention on the external appearance and idiosyncrasies of her characters, she directed her whole attention to the portrayal of the inner man.” She may clothe them in outward idiosyncrasy, but this idiosyncrasy is never the principal thing about them as with Dickens or Trollope. We do not remember her serious characters by their appearance or the way they talked; indeed we do not remember these things clearly at all. Her portraits are all primarily portraits of the inner man. England
George Eliot’s great merit as a portrayer of character lies in her power to depict the gradual evolution of character. Her characters are never static. They continue to change either for the worse or for the better. ‘Character too,’ she says, ‘is a process.’ Long rightly remarks “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 later novelists, their characters already formed, and we are reasonably sure that what will they 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 that they do and the thoughts that they cherish. The novelist exhibits the mode by which step by step a character goes down, re-adjusting his principles to suit his practice, till imperceptibly he is transformed, changed or ruined.”
George Eliot’s chief figures are dominated and governed by moral considerations. Her concentration on the moral side of human nature is the chief source of her greatness as a novelist, and her greatest and most precious contribution to the English novel. “Her imagination is not a distorting glass like Dickens,’ vitalising her figures by accentuating their personal idiosyncrasies, nor is, like Charlotte Bronte’s, a painted window suffusing them with the colour of her own live temperament; it is an X-ray, bringing them to life by the clearness with which she penetrates to the secret mainspring of their action.” (David Cecil) Her personages are always true to their respective moral natures. They are consistent. They act inevitably under the irresistible force of their inner light, and so they are always true to themselves. “Through every change of fortune, every circumstance, they remain the same clear, recognisable, individual moral entities.”
George Eliot achieved her greatest success in drawing complex characters. Novelists who concentrate on the outside aspects of character generally fail in the portrayal of complex characters. George Eliot being a psychologist could successfully draw complex characters like Maggie Tulliver and Tito. “It is the habit of my imagination” said George Eliot, “to strive after as full a vision of the medium in which a character moves, as the character itself.” Her characters are fully integrated with their social environment.
George Eliot exhibited a rare insight in the presentation of female characters and her female figures have a feminine attitude towards life. They are all vividly and convincingly drawn. Nearly always, the subject is studied from the woman’s point of view, the women are so vastly superior to their lovers that it is difficult for the reader to appreciate all that it means for them. Arthur Donnithorne and Stephen Guest are drawn with the most convincing art, but that only serves to lay bare their unworthiness. The estimable Philip Wakem, whose father is the regular woman’s idea of the wicked person a successful lawyer must be, Felix-Holt, said to be a portrait of Gerald Massey and Tito Melema, who, as Leslie Stephen points out, is really a woman in man’s dress, are all evidently evolved at embodiments of the qualities that a woman would justifiably prize in the opposite sex; they are flagrant examples of a woman’s man, much more than Charlotte Bronte’s Rochester and Paul Emanuel were.
George Eliot’s men and women are usually drawn after her relatives and friends. Hence their peculiar vividness and truth to life. She reveals herself and her relatives through her characters. Dinah Morris in Adam Bede is drawn after her aunt. Mrs. Poyser, Hetty’s aunt, is said to show some traits of George Eliot’s mother. Adam Bede is drawn after her own father. The picture of Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss is her own personal study.
Though George Eliot was essentially a serious novelist representing the shadows that cloud human existence, yet she was not without a touch of humour. She does not lack humour. Through her rustic characters she could present plenty of grave and ironical humour. Her rustic characters, Mrs. Poyser, for example, are unconsciously humorous and are the cause of mirth in others without being mirthful themselves. George Eliot could not paint a humorous character like Sir John Falstaff who is witty in himself and is the cause of wit in others. She could paint only such funny characters as provide mirth to others. Further, her humour often becomes satirical and acquires a sharp edge as in the presentation of the Dodsons. Another of her limitations is that there are certain subjects which she could never joke about. “George Eliot keeps a tight rein on her humour. Conscientiously serious like all Victorian intellectuals, she considered a great many subject no joking matter. She thought it shockingly heartless to make fun of people’s tender feelings, or scared aspirations. Even at its brightest her humour is not exuberant. But within its limitations it is both individual and delightful. “Intelligence gives it edge; good humour gives it glow; it sparkles over the comedy of rustic provincial life, a satire at once cool and mellow, incisive and genial.” —(David Cecil)
George Eliot is successful in the presentation of scenes of pathos. She could depict moving incidents which touch the core of our heart. Her tragedies are heart-rending. George Eliot completed the work of Wordsworth. “He dealt with the pathos of pastoral life in a spirit of measureless humanity. She mingled its pathos with humour and produced the greatest dramatic effect.”
“George Eliot’s style is lucid, and to begin with simple, but later, in reflective passages, it is often overweighed with abstractions. Her dialogue is excellent for the revelation of character, and her command of the idiom of ordinary speech enables her to achieve a fine naturalness. Only rarely does she rise to the impassioned poetical heights of the Brontes, but her earlier novels, particularly The Mill on the Floss, are full of fine descriptions of the English countryside, and her faculty for natural description she never lost entirely.” —(E. Albert)
“George Eliot is of great importance in the history of fiction. Her serious concern with the problems of the human personality and its relationship with forces outside itself, her interest in detailed psychological analysis of the inner consciousness, did much to determine the future course of the English novel. The twentieth century has seen the rapid development of these interests, and it is significant that the reputation of George Eliot, which suffered a temporary eclipse after her death, has recovered during the last ten or twenty years to a surprising degree.” —(E. Albert)