George Eliot’s novels are often painful places to be. Her characters frequently find themselves embroiled in circumstances beyond their control or understanding, struggling to find their way forward in the face of incompatible desires or competing goods. “It is very difficult to know what to do,” Janet Dempster says plaintively in “Janet’s Repentance,” one of Eliot’s first published works of fiction, when she flees her miserable marriage to an abusive alcoholic. “O it is difficult, — life is very difficult!” says Maggie Tulliver to Stephen Guest in The Mill on the Floss as she resists the mutual passion that violates their most cherished loyalties; to her, “one course seemed as difficult as another.”
Who — as a spouse, a lover, a parent, a friend — hasn’t been in such a situation, when to go one way seems as fraught with complications as to go another? If only there were simple rules to follow, or someone to relieve us of the burden of navigating our own way through life’s complexities. That, as Eliot is well aware, is one of the great consolations of religion: it offers us not just scriptures full of precepts to follow, but a hierarchy, both worldly and otherworldly, to which we can submit our problems and subordinate our judgment. But even for believers, the world can be a lonely and confusing place, and the yearned-for help can seem long in coming, while nonbelievers (like Eliot herself) have no comforting expectation that solutions to immediate hardships will be delivered from afar, or that there will be compensations in another life for trials in this one. Moral courage is hard to sustain in the face of such cosmic indifference.
Between prayer and despair, however, lies a different possible response to our common condition, one exemplified in Eliot’s novels in ways that reflect her own most deeply held convictions about our place in and responsibility for the world we live in. Over and over in her fiction she shows us that our best hope and greatest obligation is not faith but fellowship: that while we may not have God, we do have each other. There are still no simple solutions to our problems: indeed, her novels immerse us in the density of the historical, social, and personal contexts in which, like us, her characters are entangled. But her novels, which she called “experiments in life,” teach us through vicarious experience to sympathize with their predicaments and then to recognize our own role in making the world a better — or at least a less difficult — place.
Eliot’s interest in translating sacred impulses into secular action is visible throughout her novels, which are preoccupied with religion to an extent that initially seems paradoxical. She was, after all, as one contemporary observed, “the first great godlesswriter of fiction.” Yet Scenes of Clerical Life, with its minute and sympathetic attention to parish life, convinced many of its original readers that its then-anonymous author must “himself” be a clergyman. The Methodist preacher Dinah Morris is the moral center of Adam Bede; in Romola the eponymous heroine transforms her life under the influence of the charismatic preacher Savonarola. From Adam Bede’s Reverend Irwine to Felix Holt’s Mr. Lyon or Dr. Kenn in The Mill on the Floss, clergyman often embody her novels’ highest virtues — compassion, generosity, altruism. But there is no real contradiction here. For one thing, from its largest organizations to its metaphorical language, Eliot’s world, and the world of her characters, was saturated with religion; her realism required her to reflect that fact in her fiction. Even more important, though Eliot’s studies had led her to reject Christianity’s supernatural premises as myths rather than truths, she recognized the church itself as a vital historical and social institution, one that had long provided forms and opportunities for people to express their highest moral aspirations. Following Ludwig Feuerbach, whose Das Wesen des Christentums (The Essence of Christianity) she was the first to translate into English, Eliot believed that what people imagined as “God” was really a projection of their own best and worst capacities. As science and philosophy advanced, she expected that people would reclaim supposedly divine qualities and powers as their own and thus come to accept their own primary responsibility for the state of the world. In the meantime, doctrines mattered less than actions: the real measure of virtue, she held, was sympathy “with individual sufferings and individual joys,” an ethics for which religious faith was neither necessary nor sufficient.
All of her novels guide us towards this revised understanding of religion, not as the earthly manifestation of divine will, but as something essentially and inextricably human. This aim is made most explicit in Silas Marner, which rewrites Christianity’s central salvation myth as a humanist fable: in Eliot’s version too, redemption comes in the form of a small child, but one whose history is anything but miraculous and whose influence is thus all the more profound and touching. Eliot always feared lapsing (in her words) “from the picture to the diagram,” however, and thus she is rarely so overt in pursuit of her philosophical aims. “After all has been said that can be said about the widening influence of ideas,” she observes in Romola, “it remains true that they would hardly be such strong agents unless they were taken in a solvent of feeling.” Though her essays and reviews demonstrate her mastery of argumentative rhetoric, she found that fiction enabled the most potent combination of thought and feeling. “Art is the nearest thing to life,” she argued in her early essay “The Natural History of German Life.” It is “a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot”:
The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.
Her novels work in just this way, guiding us, without lecturing us, to put aside the religious doctrines that too often divide or punish, rather than help, and urging us to embrace the simple starting premise expressed by Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch: “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?”
This philosophical project appears in its most elegant form in Middlemarch, where it is fully integrated into the novel’s moral and emotional drama. An exemplary moment occurs soon after a crisis in Dorothea’s marriage. We know long before she does that this marriage was a terrible mistake. Idealistic but naïve, Dorothea mistook the drearily pedantic scholar Edward Casaubon for the answer to her pressing question: “What could she do, what ought she to do?” Believing he could lead her to the spiritually meaningful future she dreamed of, she accepted his proposal — only to discover on their honeymoon that “such capacity of thought and feeling as had ever been stimulated in him by the general life of mankind had long shrunk to a sort of dried preparation, a lifeless embalmment of knowledge.” She is too preoccupied with her own disappointment to consider his point of view: “she had not yet,” the narrator tells us, “listened patiently to his heart-beats, but only felt that her own was beating violently.”
Soon after they return home, Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon quarrel bitterly over what Dorothea (with some justice) perceives as unwarranted criticism on her husband’s part: “Dorothea had thought that she could have been patient with John Milton,” the narrator remarks dryly, “but she had never imagined him behaving in this way.” Dorothea is full of self-righteous anger — until Mr. Casaubon collapses with a heart attack. Our sympathy for him, like hers, is at a low ebb when it strikes, but it’s a sad spectacle nonetheless, and it is not in Dorothea’s nature to turn away from suffering, even of the man who has blighted her own hopes. In her emotional turmoil, she turns to the young doctor Tertius Lydgate, who has been called in for his medical advice. “Help me, pray,” she says to him piteously; “tell me what I can do.”
It is with her complex existential situation, as much as her husband’s physical health, that she really longs for help, but Dr. Lydgate —who like a good man of science deals primarily in the literal world — is ill-equipped to understand, much less solve, her problem. And so, finding himself at a loss, he rises to go:
He was bowing and quitting her, when an impulse which if she had been alone would have turned into a prayer, made her say with a sob in her voice —
“Oh, you are a wise man, are you not? You know all about life and death. Advise me. Think what I can do. He has been labouring all his life and looking forward. He minds about nothing else. And I mind about nothing else —”
For years after Lydgate remembered the impression produced in him by this involuntary appeal — this cry from soul to soul, without other consciousness than their moving with kindred natures in the same embroiled medium, the same troublous fitfully-illuminated life. But what could he say now except that he should see Mr. Casaubon again to-morrow?
Dorothea’s desperate appeal is all the more moving because there are no simple solutions. What can Dorothea do — whatshould Dorothea do, indeed? Does compassion require her to sacrifice her youth to a man who is proving wholly undeserving of her ardent devotion? Would it be so wrong to stand resolute against his arbitrary demands and stultifying inhibitions, insisting on her own right to happiness, and never mind his failed hopes and heartfelt sorrows? And yet how can we expect her to turn her back on the man for whom the narrator has only just made this eloquent case:
For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self — never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted. Becoming a dean or even a bishop would make little difference, I fear, to Mr. Casaubon’s uneasiness. Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.
Mr. Casaubon’s “hungry shivering self” surely has some moral claim on Dorothea, especially because the illness that is so distressing to her might well prove literally fatal to him. Before long, in one of the novel’s most moving passages, we will be reminded that he is a man “looking into the eyes of death,”
passing through one of those rare moments of experience when we feel the truth of a commonplace, which is as different from what we call knowing it, as the vision of waters upon the earth is different from the delirious vision of the water which cannot be had to cool the burning tongue. When the commonplace ‘We must all die’ transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness ‘I must die — and soon,’ then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel.
Unpleasant as Mr. Casaubon is, the reiterated first-person pronouns remind us of our kinship with him, if only in our common mortality. What, then, are the duties of his wife, who — albeit under a naïve delusion — vowed to love, honor, and cherish him? These questions go well beyond any physic Lydgate could provide, and no answer he or we might come up with is going to satisfy all of the competing demands George Eliot has established on our sympathies or our conscience.
Dorothea’s “involuntary appeal” speaks for all of us who have looked at our “fitfully illuminated” lives and wondered what we can — or, often harder, what we should — do. Dorothea’s religion teaches her that at such a time she should appeal to God, and indeed the narrator remarks that if Dorothea had been alone, her supplicating impulse would have “turned into a prayer.” She isn’t alone, though, and what she really wants and needs is not divine intervention of some indeterminate kind but personal comfort and practical guidance. There at hand is someone whose own wider experience might provide the wisdom he needs to offer her, if not solutions, at least support. “You are a wise man,” she says to Lydgate entreatingly; “you know all about life and death. Advise me. Think what I can do.” Caught up in the story, we can feel the emotional urgency of her demand even as we recognize that there is no single clear path through the tangled web of circumstance, duty, and emotion in which Dorothea is caught. Eliot’s ethics are not prescriptive in that way: she does not offer a set of alternative commandments, which in her view would be a mistaken effort to codify the intricacies of human life. “All people of broad, strong sense,” she writes in The Mill on the Floss,
have an instinctive repugnance to the man of maxims; because such people early discern that the mysterious complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy.
“Moral judgments,” she believed, “must remain false and hollow, unless they are checked and enlightened by a perpetual reference to the special circumstances that mark the individual lot.” Her novels draw us into just such attention to particularities, never falsifying the difficulty of knowing what to do. But they also insist that complexity is not the same as inexplicability, and that our appeals for help don’t have to dead-end in mystery. Patient inquiry, deep understanding, and sympathy are our best ways forward, and while an appeal to God may momentarily relieve our feelings, Dorothea’s “cry from soul to soul” points us towards what we all really need: not a priest, but a friend.