Bernard J. Paris


Rereading George Eliot: Changing Perspectives on Her Experiments in Life

This is my second book on George Eliot. The first -- Experiments in Life: George Eliot's Quest for Values (1965) -- was a revision of my doctoral dissertation. A product of my training at Johns Hopkins in thematic analysis and the history of ideas, it examined George Eliot's ideas in relation to her intellectual milieu and her novels in relation to her ideas. It paid close attention to the themes of the novels and the ways in which characters embody them. George Eliot saw her novels as a set of "experiments in life" in which she tested her beliefs by clothing them in human figures and individual experience, and I accepted her epistemological claims. I, too, saw her novels as confirming the results of her quest for values in a Godless universe. When I wrote my dissertation, I was a true believer in George Eliot's Religion of Humanity; but by the time it was published as a book, I had lost my enthusiasm for her ideas. I analyze this crucial episode in my personal and intellectual history in the opening chapter; for it bears strongly on one of the topics of the present study: namely, the way in which our responses to literature are influenced by our character structures and emotional needs, and how we become different interpreters as we undergo psychological change. I came to understand my shifting attitudes partly through my fortuitous reading of Karen Horney, who had been recommended to me by a colleague, and partly through my experience in psychotherapy. As a result of these two influences, I began to develop a psychological approach to literature, the implications of which I have explored in a series of books. This book is in a way part of that series, further extending it into the area of reader response; but its less explicit use of psychological theory should widen its appeal.

One of the results of my having become a very different interpreter is that I am often critical of George Eliot's interpretations and judgments, whereas I had relied on them before as guides to the understanding of her characters and, indeed, to the meaning of life. Another result, of a more positive kind, is that I now appreciate her psychological intuitions, which are embodied in her mimetic portraits of characters and relationships. After my initial disenchantment, I have come back to seeing George Eliot as a very great novelist, but for entirely different reasons than before.

In this book, I concentrate on George Eliot's most impressive psychological novels: Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. I focus on her detailed portrayal of the major characters in an effort to recover her intuitions and appreciate her mimetic achievement. Comparing the characters she has actually created with the version of them contained in her rhetoric, I find that there is often a great disparity between the two. George Eliot thought that clothing her ideas in human form and individual experience would provide a kind of experimental confirmation; but instead her imagined human beings often subverted the ideas she was trying to verify. However, through the process of character creation, her experiments in life led her to deeper, more enduring truths. Her novels were, in fact, instruments of knowledge; but she did not consciously comprehend the discoveries she had made. Like her characters, they must be disengaged from her rhetoric in order to be perceived.

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