The Traditional Novel: Its Plots
George Eliot was a contemporary of such early Victorian novelists as Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Mrs. Gaskel. They were all novelists in the tradition of Henry Fielding. George Eliot also follows that tradition in many respects, but she also modifies and alters that tradition. This departure from tradition is most clearly seen in her art of plot-construction. “The traditional English novel,” says David Cecil, “consisted of a number of characters and incidents knit together by an intrigue centring round a young attractive hero and heroine and rounded off with their happy marriage. The plot did not, except in the single case of Vanity Fair, arise from the characters, it was imposed by the author on them.
George Eliot’s Originality
“But George Eliot began with an idea of character or situation, her plot was intended to follow, not a standardised formula, but what she conceived to be the logical development of that idea; and this might entail something quite different from the accepted Victorian notion of plot. It might entail no marriage, no happy ending, no character answering to the Victorian conception of hero or heroine. Often it did not. In Silas Marner the hero is an elderly bachelor; The Mill on the Floss ends very badly and has no hero at all. In Middlemarch there is no central figure of any kind; the main interest is divided between four separate groups of characters and none of these, except Dorothea Brooke, approaches the conventional heroic type. Finally, since the action of George Eliot’s stories arises logically from the characters, those strokes of fortunes, coincidences, sudden inheritances, long-lost wills, which are the stock-in-trade of the ordinary Victorian plot, are inevitably omitted. They 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 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 Arnold Bennett. Hers are the first examples in English of the novel in its mature form; in them it structurally comes of age.”
Logical Causation: Thematic Unity
In other words, George Eliot’s plots are all expositions of some particular idea or theme. As in the other Victorian novels, we also get in her work beautiful descriptions of rural life and a number of characters drawn from that life. But such scenes and characters are subsidiary to the central idea round which the story is built. This is so because she is the first intellectual novelist. Says David Cecil, “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. It is inspired, not by a wish to convey her impressions of life but her judgments on it. And it embodied itself not in a picture but in a theme. She did not have a vision of Barchester or
Cranford and then invent situations on which to hang her picture of this vision; she had a vision of human society as the expression of certain principles, and she embodied it in a picture of a specific place-Middlemarch. Her novels are built round an idea or theme, and everything not relevant to that idea is rigidly excluded. The end is implicit in the beginning, successive events are logically and casually connected with each other and as the action proceeds, it is seen to be the logical and natural outcome of the character or characters concerned and those characters themselves are the result of their social environment.” Thus the final catastrophe in The Mill on the Floss follows logically from Maggie’s love of her brother, and her emotional, noble and self-effacing nature. Her death by drowning is hinted at, right from the beginning, when her mother repeatedly calls her a ‘wild thing’ and is afraid that she would be drowned one day. The central idea or theme is that any deviation from the path of duty and rectitude is bound to bring down nemesis, and the plot is designed to illustrate this theme.
George Eliot’s novels are organic wholes, the characters, the setting and the social environment are well integrated. Once George Eliot herself said, “It is the habit of my imagination to strive after as full a vision of the medium in which a character moves as of the character itself” and that habit accounts for the depth and breadth of the vision of life she communicates. In her novels of the English rural life, she deals with, “The rural and provincial life of
she had known from childhood: her imagination contained it rather than strove after it. But it is clear that she gave as much attention to presenting the outer circle of her design as the inner. The outer circle within which the dramatic situation is contained, is an organic human society and her novels are deeply imbued with the spirit of a particular place and time.” —(Joan Bennet) England
For example in Adam Bede the social milieu is provided by the life of Hayslopes. The people have certain standards of right and wrong, they have their well-established moral codes and an action is judged with reference to this code. The life of the outer circle (Hayslope society) is well described to make the readers feel that Hetty’s flight was as natural and inevitable in that particular society, as Arthur’s weakness in deserting her. Says Joan Bennet, “There is no part of what we have learnt of the outer circle that does not affect our sense of the inner. The cultured benignity of the Rector, the moral enthusiasm of the Methodists, the simple ignorance of the country-folk, all make their own impact on the central characters and help to determine the events. Although the impression while we read is of a leisurely sequence of naturalistic scenes of comedy or of pathos and of a world richly populated with entertaining characters, when we look back—we find that every individual scene or character is directly or indirectly related to the simple story at the core of the book, of the carpenter’s betrothed betrayed by the Squire’s grandson. In its setting this commonplace story becomes widely significant. “The simple well-contrived pattern conveys the sense of a social structure enclosing four human beings as completely as the soil encloses the roots of a growing plant and, in so doing, it illustrates one aspect of the author’s vision of life.”
“Although the formal pattern is not elsewhere so simple and symmetrical as it is in Adam Bede—the general character of the design, an individual tragedy surrounded by the life of a community, is similar in all George Eliot’s novels except Daniel Deronda, where the absence of such an enclosing community is an important part of her conception. In all her novels there is an “inter-penetration between the life of a community and the individual lives that compose it.” Her greatest success is achieved where this enveloping social life is well-sketched, a failure in this respect weakens her novels as is the case with Romola, Felix Holt and Daniel Deronda. In these novels, the social environment is not sufficiently convincing to provide a unifying centre; whereas, in the vintage works, the community has identity as recognizable and persuasive as that of the central characters, and it is the moral code, traditions, customs, beliefs, etc., of this social environment which determine the action.”
Suspense and Curiosity
The novel is primarily an entertainment and George Eliot’s novels are not deficient in this respect. Curiosity is excited from the very beginning, the readers are eager to know the next step, and, are fully involved in the fate of the central figure or figures, and as the action proceeds we get an analysis, a presentation of the inner drama, the moral conflict, which goes on within the mind of the central figures. In this way, her novels acquire a gripping interest. The melodramatic is also introduced in deference to prevalent conventions. Her delicious humour and excellently done scenes of pathos, also contribute to the charm aim fascination of her stories, but it is the inner man, the conflict within the soul which increasingly absorbs the attention, so that the reader does not like to put down the book unfinished.
The Traditional Framework
George Eliot’s plots have a beginning, a middle and an end. In some respects she is a novelist in the Fielding tradition. The main interest is focused on a small group of characters, the development of whole fortunes is laid out. They move towards a crisis or tangle which is unravelled before the end, so that in the last chapter a denouement is reached. All the fortunes with which the reader has been concerned are tied up. The story ends in a marriage or a death and the future of the survivors is indicated. The reader is persuaded that the story is complete. Within this framework there is scope for the narrator to comment on the action and the characters and so to expound her ‘philosophy’ or sense of moral values. ‘Wit’, both in the commentary and in the dialogue, contributes to the reader’s delight and communicates the author’s sense of proportion; descriptive powers evoke the surroundings in which the action takes place, while dramatic powers enable the author to recreate the scenes of the story in terms of dialogue and action.
But from another point of view George Eliot is an innovator. The organic or living form of her novels, within the expected framework, is different from anything that had gone before. It resembles in some respects, Jane Austen’s form insofar as the central characters are deeply rooted in their social environment—which determines their story as much as does their individual character. The difference is that the social environment is wider, more complex, made up of a greater variety of minor characters drawn from many more social and economic levels, and also that the display of this outer circle or environment is more conscious. Jane Austen took her social milieu for granted; its manners and traditions were, for her, as little open to question as the laws of nature. George Eliot was aware of the ethical, religious, and social conventions of the world she paints, as a product of history, evolved in time and changing with times. She was consciously interested in the pressure all these exert on individual selves and in the existence of a problem concerned with the resisting of, or succumbing to that pressure.
Logical Unfolding of Character
She shares the awareness of modern man that human society is constantly changing and developing. “Consequently, the organic form of her novels—an inner circle (a small group of individuals involved in a moral dilemma) surrounded by an outer circle (the social world within which the dilemma has to be resolved)—is more significant than in any preceding fiction. Furthermore, her perception of individual human beings is more complex than that of her predecessors. She never suggests a simple division of characters into good and bad. The individual, like the environment, has evolved and is evolving; and the action is designed to show this evolution. This is what George Eliot meant when she said, “My stories grow in me like plants.” It is the growth of the plant, the gradual unfolding of character in its environment, that compels attention, not the mere concatenation of events, as is the case with the novelists in the Fielding tradition.