The Realism of George Eliot Novels

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      George Eliot took the art of a novelist very seriously and in her essays and articles frequently chastised those who regarded the novel as a mere entertainment. She was critical or those lady novelists who write silly, facile novels and believed that only cultivated minds could really appreciate the art of novelists like Jane Austen. Her high conception of the novel resulted from the fact that before taking to novel writing she had been an earnest student of philosophy and psychology, well abreast of contemporary science, the friend and collaborator of the leading thinkers, and herself a writer on philosophical and social subjects. She had already translated Strauss and Feuerbach, and was widely known as a free-thinker, with strong views especially on ethical questions. Thus when she took to writing novels she brought a well-cultivated mind to bear upon the art of the novel and its problems.


      George Eliot believed that the novel should be realistic through and through. Realism is the dominant note of her own fiction. In her early novels, as also in Middlemarch, she draws heavily upon her childhood memories. She gives us faithful pictures of the English Midlands, and of the life and character of the people who live in the Midlands, and with whom she had lived and moved in her childhood and girlhood. Such as the realism, of her early novels, that efforts have been made to identify the persons and places
mentioned therein. Many of the characters have been drawn from her own relatives, friends and acquaintances. They are portraits of people known to her. She adhered passionately to truth, and was determined to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. For George Eliot, says A.E. Baker, “Truth was the while duty of the novelist”, and she clung to truth with religious devotion.


      Ever since Fielding, English novelists freely indulged in moralizing and authorial comments. They intrude into the drama of character and action; such intrusive comments take much from the realism of the novel. George Eliot, too, true to age old tradition indulges in such comments. But in her case, such intrusions, are less frequent and less glaring than in others, and usually, they are placed in the mouth of some chorus character or characters say, for example, Mrs. Poyser in Adam Bede. Moreover, the comments and homilies with which she interrupts her narrative, are justified because they give us more of truth about the inner man. Her psychological studies had sharpened her insight into the inner sphere of man’s life and activity; her preponderant interest in morals ‘fixed her eye on the mental processes by which acts are engendered, and the chains of consequence by which what a man does or what a man is becomes the decisive factor in his destiny and in that of many who are perhaps but slenderly connected with him. She has psychological and emotional realism, which is more important, than factual realism of the ordinary novelist.


      The fullest statement of her artistic creed is to be found in the opening to the second book of Adam Bede, where, after remarking, that she would not, even if she had the choice, “be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this”, she goes on:

      So I am content to tell my simple story, without trying to make things seem better than they are; dreading nothing, indeed but falsity, which in spite of one’s best efforts, there is reason to dread. Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult.... Examine your word well and you will find that even when you have no motive to be false, it is a very hard thing to say the exact truth even about your own immediate feelings—much more than to say something fine about them which is ' not the exact truth. It is for this rare, precious quality of truthfulness that I delight in many Dutch paintings which lofty minded people despise. I find a source of delicious sympathy in these faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence, which has been the fate of so many more among my fellow mortals than a life of pomp or of absolute indigence of tragic suffering or of world-stirring actions. I turn, without shrinking, from cloud-borne angels, from prophets, sibyls, and heroic warriors, to an old woman bending over her flowerpot, or eating her solitary dinner, while the noonday light, softened perhaps by a screen of leaves, falls on her mob-cap, and just touches the rim of her spinning wheel, and her stone jug, and all those cheap common things which are the precious necessaries of life to her;—or I turn to that village wedding, kept between four brown walls, where an awkward bridegroom opens the dance with a high shouldered, broad-faced bride, while elderly and middle-aged friends look on, with very irregular noses and lips, and probably with quart pots in their hands, but with an expression of unmistakable contentment and goodwill. ‘Foh’ says my idealistic friend, “What vulgar details! What good is there in taking all these pains to give an exact likeness of old women and clowns? What a low phase of life—what clumsy, ugly people!”


      Her aim was to deal with the commonplace—the ordinary and the familiar—both in character and action and to reveal its inherent grandeur and nobility. She sees into the heart things, like a romantic, and reveals the beauty and grandeur of the familiar and commonplace. Thus she, too, had a strain of the romantic in her genius, bill realism is the basis of her romanticism. There is idealization or heightening of reality but never any falsification or distortion of it. In this respect, she is closer to Wordsworth, than to Crabbe. Her tenderness, her universal charity, her sense of humor, all color and modify her realism, ‘so that she sees beauty even in things ugly’. She was of the same mind as the Brontes, the true romantic vision had been revealed to her also. Like them, she believed in the spirituality of life, in the intrinsic value of personality, and the sovereign importance of those events which take place in the inner consciousness. Like a romantic, despite all her rationalism, she did never lose her sense of divine immanence, divine transcendence, and the worth of the inner man, and all this faith modifies and, colors the realism of her novels.


      In “Amos Barton” (Scenes of Clerical Life) she writes that she lacked imagination but the statement is belied by her work. To quote her own words, “for not having a lofty imagination, as you perceive, and being unable to invent thrilling incidents for your amusement, my only merit must lie in the truth with which I represent to you the humble experience of ordinary fellow-mortals. I wish to stir your sympathy with commonplace troubles—to win your tears for real sorrow, sorrow such as may live next door to you—such as walks neither in rags nor in gorgeous dresses, but in very ordinary decent apparel.” George Eliot shunned ‘loftiness’, but she exerted her imagination in so reconstructing the little provincial world in which the originals of Amos Barton, Mr. Gilfil, and Janet Dempster moved and had their being, that her version received fullest significance as pictures of human beings acting, striving and suffering, with the reactions upon themselves and upon those about them.


      George Eliot had also thought long and deep over the formal aspects of her art. She believed that the novel should not be merely a chain of events loosely connected together by the figure of the central personage. She believed that everything superfluous should be done away with, and every event should be causally and logically connected with the other, so that the end is implicit in the beginning. In a letter to Hutton she wrote. 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. The massive leisureliness of Adam Bede, adding particle to particle and building layer upon layer with sea-depth patience, brings to life the leisurely pace of life in rural Hayslop. The Mill on the floss vividly presents the world of the Dodsons, with their promissory notes and five per cent, their misty best-rooms where the sheets are laid out to masterfully cope with a “sudden death in the family, their ruthless distinctions of kin and no-kin. Middlemarch professedly sets out to be a study of provincial life and succeeds in presenting a panorama of English life in the Midlands in the 1830’s where the sociologist and social historians would have little to add and less to cavil at. One may not agree with Dorothy Van Ghent when she says of Adam Bede that it is the community that is the protagonist of this novel, but in Middlemarch there is little doubt that it is Middlemarch itself that towers above everything else. The Warwickshire society is the medium in the early novels in which her characters live, move and I have their being and this medium is shown as acting upon the characters, molding their attitudes, and influencing the course of action. Everything superfluous is rigidly excluded. Hutton criticized Romola for having much in it that is undigested and irrelevant, and she replied to him, “perhaps even a judge so discerning as yourself could not appreciate how strict a self-control and selection were exercised in the presentation of details. I believe there is scarcely a phrase, an incident, an allusion that did not gather its value to me from its supposed subservience to my main artistic objects.”

      This remark clearly brings out her awareness of the finer points of the craft of fiction.


      George Eliot also had a high conception of the function of her art. It was not mere entertainment but an instrument for making men nobler and better. The true purpose of art she believed to be the extension of human sympathies: “If art does not enlarge man’s sympathies, it does nothing morally. I have had heart-cutting ‘experience that’ opinions are a poor cement between human souls: and the only effect I long to produce by my writings is, that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring, human creatures.” She lays great stress on duty and right action and severely applies in her novels, the law of moral retribution, the reiterated doctrine that sins bring their wages. Nemesis is lame, she says, but she is of colossal statures, like the gods; and sometimes, while her sword is not yet, unsheathed, she stretches out her huge left arm and grasps her victim. This is one of her propetic hints of fate lying in ambush like the allusion to the malignant destiny, which, was preparing to upset Mr. Barton, little as he, suspected it.’. More moving to both mind and feeling is the death of Dempster’s mother, in ‘Janet’s Repentance,’ for this was an event having consequences which everyone could see. Her characters suffer because they have transgressed because they have violated some moral law however involuntarily and unconsciously, like Hetty Sorrel in Attain Bede and Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss. She believed that, “our devils determine us, as much us ire determine our deeds,” and her novels are so many expositions of this faith.

      George Eliot’s novels are all dramas of moral conflict. She did not believe in art of for arts’s sake, but in art for morality’s sake. According to Leslie Stephen, “George Eliot believed that a work of art not only may, but must, exercise also an ethical influence”. In one of her letters to Charles Bray she wrote, “My own experience and development deepen every day my conviction, that our moral progress may be measured by the degree in which we sympathise with individual suffering and individual joy. To further this kind of moral progress was her most consciously held aim as a novelist, just as it was Wordsworth’s aim to widen his readers sensibility, and make them more actively and securely virtuous.


      Artistic power she defined as an instinctive perception of the varied slates to which the human mind is susceptible, with ability to give them out anew in intensified expression. Connected with this outlook is her deliberate renunciation of the stock themes of
traditional fiction and the stage-properties of romance, in favor of that imaginative penetration of the commonplace which she often achieves, and too often also rather embarrassingly discusses in the novels themselves. “My artistic bent”, she says in a letter to Blackwood, “is directed not at all to the presentation of eminently irreproachable characters, blit to the presentation of mixed human beings in such a way as to call forth tolerant judgment, pity and Sympathy. This is illustrated repeatedly by the theme of the novels. Idealism, aspirations for noble achievement, efforts towards self-realization, and self-fulfillment are again and again frustrated by some inner taint or weakness or adverse circumstance, because her characters are all mixed human beings; Many a noble Theresa in her novels is frustrated and, either goes under or has to compromise with circumstances. The great soils in George Eliot are brought low, and come down to earth with wings dipped in the mud. Romola, it is true, attains a sort of ultimate deliverance — finds sanctity in service but there is a note of fairy-tale unreality in the last chapters of the novel. The destinies of Maggie, Lydgate, Dorothea and Gwendolen are nearer to her intuition.


      George Eliot had a high conception of the novel, and she used it as a means of moral uplift. As one critic points out, “Doing without opium truly involves much anguish, and one can understand why George Eliot once said it would be better if my life could be done for me, and I could look on.” In her hand, the novel becomes a medium for the serious discussion of problems of life and death and the human predicament in general.

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