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ELIOTS SPINOZA: REALISM, AFFECT, AND ETHICS

BY

JAMES J. ARNETT

A dissertation submitted to the Graduate Faculty in English in partial fulfillment of the


requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, The City University of New York

2013

UMI Number: 3561202

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GRADUATE FACULTY IN ENGLISH IN SATISFACTION OF THE
DISSERTATION REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY

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DATE

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ABSTRACT
ELIOTS SPINOZA: REALISM, AFFECT, AND ETHICS
BY

JAMES J. ARNETT
ADVISER: PROFESSOR PETER HITCHCOCK
In this dissertation, the intersection of the affective-ethical philosophy of Spinoza and the
realism of the nineteenth-century British novelist George Eliot are mapped. Eliot was the first
translator of Spinozathough her translations were never publishedand few scholars have
worked out the ways in which her novels are steeped in his philosophy. This dissertation seeks to
make an intervention first in the fields of Victorian literature and realism, but also in the
developing field of affect studies, and contributes to interdisciplinary conversations about the
confluence of literature and philosophy. The expansive introduction of the dissertation looks
closely at the philosophical translations that occupied Eliot in the earliest stages of her career
Strauss, Feuerbach, and Spinozaand the ways in which these foundational texts congeal into a
discourse of philosophical materialism that informed her commitments to literary realism.
Chapter 1 analyzes the ways in which Eliot deploys large-scale organic and scientific metaphors
in Middlemarch in order to metaphorize Spinozas concept of immanence, which she deploys in
order to emphasize human impingement. Chapter 2 moves to consider Middlemarchs ethos of
sympathy as an application of Spinozas affective ethics. Chapters 3 and 4 proceed to interrogate
the role that knowledge and education play in the shaping of an ethical praxis in Daniel Deronda
and Felix Holt, the Radical; in the former, knowledge and education is represented in such a way
as the means to a Spinozist version of individual freedom, and in the latter, education is seen as
the lever by which an interpersonal ethics is transformed into a collective politics. The final two
chapters explore the imbrication of kinship, nationalism, and politics in The Spanish Gypsy,

Daniel Deronda, and The Impressions of Theophrastus Such, and argue that these three texts
represent Eliots substantial critique of the ethical utility of collective politics as developed by
Spinoza in his Political Treatise.

vi

FOR EVE

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ELIOTS SPINOZA: REALISM, AFFECT, AND ETHICS


INTRODUCTION

CHAPTER ONE:
THE WEB, THE GLASS, THE BODY: IMMANENCE, SCIENCE AND METAPHOR IN MIDDLEMARCH
81
CHAPTER TWO:
HOW TO HEAR A SQUIRRELS HEARTBEAT (AND WHY YOU MIGHT WANT TO)

148

CHAPTER THREE:
WHAT AM I TO DO?: KNOWLEDGE AND PRAXIS IN CHAPTER 36 OF DANIEL DERONDA

203

CHAPTER FOUR:
REFORM: THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE ETHICAL INTO THE POLITICAL IN FELIX HOLT, THE
RADICAL
255
CHAPTER FIVE:
BLOOD AND BONE: GEORGE ELIOT AND THE HORIZON OF NATIONALISM

322

CHAPTER SIX:
GEORGE ELIOTS CRITICAL ZIONISM

357

BIBLIOGRAPHY

429

INTRODUCTION

The lifes work of George Eliot is considerably denser than her posthumous reputation
with casual readers belies; most readers are, after all, familiar only with her heavy tomes of
Victorian fiction, or, worse yet, with the slender Silas Marner, which few escape their secondary
education without having read. For students and scholars of Victorian literature, more breadth
emergesthey are perhaps familiar with her lesser-known works, like Romola or Felix Holt, the
Radical. True George Eliot scholars are alone familiar with the full scope of her workfamiliar
with her occasional writings, her journalistic pieces, and her translations. But even among those
scholars dedicated to teasing out the implications of George Eliots whole corpus, a crucial piece
has been missing in most considerations of her career. Every biographer is accustomed to
acknowledging that George Eliot labored for years at translating Spinozas philosophy from the
Latin heavily tinged with Hebrew and Greek, but most references to Spinoza end there, eager as
biographers are to get to the meat of her work. Critics, likewise, are guilty of a Spinozist lacuna.
There are, perhaps, many reasons for this: Spinozas reputation suffered greatly for many
centuries, the victim of slander and willful misinterpretation by church authorities; the casual
disregard of even historians of philosophy who saw his work as anomalous to a Western tradition
more conveniently constructed without him (or with only scant reference to him). Spinozas
work is infamously difficult, moreover, to read: his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is dense, rife
with references to Old Testament, and furnished with scriptural quibbles, often masking the
philosophical content. The Political Treatise is, by some modern accounts, almost
contemporaneous in spirit with our times, and certainly more progressive than its own, rendering

it difficult to place; as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, among others, note, Spinozas vision of
(what they call) commonism precedes Marxs vision of communism by two centuries. The
Political Treatise is, moreover, incomplete, leading to complications in its interpretation. The
Ethics, his most enduring work, is seen by most readers as unnecessarily complicated, deploying
the geometric method to prove, among other things, the immanence of God and the universal
substantiation of matter in an effort to demonstrate the affective-ethical responsibility of
individuals for each other.
So George Eliot scholars, certainly not a lazy lot, nevertheless largely disregard Spinoza
in estimations of her work. They are aided and abetted by the fact that her translations of Spinoza
were never published in her lifetime; the manuscripts sat, collecting dust, for most of the
twentieth century in the Beinecke Archive at Yale University. Only in 1981 was the translation
of The Ethics published: however, only in a very limited edition issued by the University of
Salzburg, and not widely available. Aside from errant dissertations like this one,1 and Dorothy
Atkinss good, but short, study of Spinoza and George Eliot, it wasnt until Moira Gatens
rediscovered the connection in the early twenty-first century, or Virgil Nemoianu sought to
read Spinoza into Daniel Deronda, or Andrew Lynn published two short articles on Spinozas
influence on George Eliots early work that critics have thought at the juncture of these two
writers; even so, new work is slow to emerge.
1

In what should read as an interesting trend, the number of dissertations emerging that work on the influence of
Spinoza on the Victorian novel is increasing; a search of ProQuests somewhat exhaustive database yields a
surprising number of results, especially in the past several years (2008-present), like Koerenraad Vermeirens
(Indiana University, 2009) Under the Influence: Sympathetic Narration in the Nineteenth-century English Realist
Novel, Elisha Cohns (Johns Hopkins, 2010) Suspended Agency: Affective Form in the Victorian Novel, Joshua
Aaron Goochs (University of Iowa, 2010) Novel Multitudes: Credit, Capital, and Collective Subjectivity in the
Victorian Novel, and David A. Brooms (University of Colorado at Boulder, 2010) Critical Dialectic: Late
Victorian Novels and Spinozas Ethics all use Spinoza as an interlocutor regarding the form and purpose of the
realist novel in the nineteenth century. Before this era, there were few studies of the Victorian novel or of George
Eliot that dared to invoke Spinoza as a formative influence: Dorothy Atkinss published volume George Eliot and
Spinoza was her 1977 dissertation at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Middlemarch sub species Spinoza:
An Ethical Study of Mr. Casaubon, by Charles Wesley Schaefer (SUNY Binghamton, 1988) are the two that
emerge at the forefront.

This dissertation places itself, then, at that juncture, still developing and emerging in
discourse. Working at the juncture of philosophy and literature has, over the past several
decades, emerged as a particularly fertile space for imagining the intersections of disparate
methods and discourses. Indeed, much of what is classified as literary theory comes from other
disciplinespolitical economy, sociology, psychology, economics, aestheticsand, primarily,
from philosophy. This dissertation does little different from the many literary scholars who align
philosophical discourse to demonstrate novel readings of novels. But one of the things that is
often elided in our literary-theoretical work is an exploration of the way in which literature may
intentionally deploy philosophy. Or, in this case: how the novels of George Eliot may force us to
reconsider the meaning and application of Spinozas philosophythat, indeed, they may mean
for us to do so. So rarely are we presented a relationship between a writer and a philosopher
where the correlation is as clear as that between George Eliot and those she translated; so few
novelists, although they may flirt with philosophical affiliations and endorsements, work with the
care and patience that George Eliot did at her translations. So George Eliots work offers us a
privileged look at the relationship between narrative and philosophy.
But to speak of the full-fledged or unfiltered presence of Spinoza in her work would be a
mistake. For every act of translation is an act of interpretationas every reading of a text is
different. There is a real danger in studies of George Eliot to read her work as if it cohered
organically around central principles. Christopher Lane is chief among new voices clamoring to
declaim the pernicious hegemony of this tendency. He queries: With George Eliot, even
sophisticated critics view her fiction and philosophy as mutually reinforcing. As with perhaps no
other Victorian writer, scholars search her essays and letters for the exact cause of her literary
arguments. Given these factors, can one plausibly examine her works multiple concerns without

appearing mildly contradictory? (xxvi). Of course, his investment is to answer no. What Lane
implicitly remarks upon, however, is the wealth of material available to the George Eliot
scholarfrom Gordon Haights meticulously collected and edited volumes of her letters, to the
publication of her journals and notebooks under various university imprimaturs, to satellite
sources like Edith Simcoxs journal. Lane is astute in pointing out that there is and should be
ample space for interpretation beyond those constellating texts that inform most readings of
George Eliots work. He encourages us to acknowledge the blinders that we don when we
uncritically accept the proliferating truisms in Eliot studies, many of which point back to the
gestalt philosophical motivation for her fiction-craft. We must be able, he urges, to recognize
that Her critical and narrative perspectives often clash; her later works differ considerably from
her earlier fiction; perspectives on fellow feeling shift imperceptibly within novels; and what
George Eliot achieves in her fiction frequently produces effects she denounces in her letters and
essays (xxvi). In other words, we must be careful not to make the mistake that George Eliots
collective textual production is one organic whole which developed naturally and without
deviation from start to finish, that it teleologically progresses from her translation work to The
Impressions of Theophrastus Such. Any study of George Eliots aesthetic and intellectual
development that bypasses Spinoza is flawedand many such studies are, preferring instead to
trace out the influence of Herbert Spencer, August Comte, J. S. Mill, or Adam Smith. Many of
the characteristics of George Eliots fiction that are celebrated are traced to these secondary
sources whose influence pales in comparison to the years spent first carefully learning the
medieval Latin in which Spinoza wrote, and then assiduously and patiently translating his work
into English.

So the dearth of criticism that acknowledges, interrogates, affirms, or even rejects, the
presence of Spinozas thought in her works needs to be addressed. If, after such a study is done,
critical ground exists for the rejection of that premisethat Spinoza was an important influence
on George Eliots fictionthen the matter can be discussed given the argument. And, moreover,
there is no doubt that the Spinoza present in George Eliots work is not necessarily the Spinoza
that appears to the contemporary reader of either writernor does her reading and representation
of Spinozist thought necessarily accord with other writers and thinkers of her own epoch; we
know from her letters and diary, for instance, that she significantly disagreed with another public
interpreter of Spinozas work, J. A. Froude.2 Thus the title of this dissertation: Eliots Spinoza.
This dissertation aims to show the relationship between the two, and the impact of the latter on
the former, but tries not to lose sight of the intricacies of the dialogue, and the singularities or
peculiarities of George Eliots own interpretation of his work.
The latter part of the title, Realism, Affect, and Ethics, does the work of breaking down
the three most significant aspects of the intersection of Spinozas philosophy and George Eliots
fiction. Realism is, of course, the literary term that George Eliot herself adopted to explain her
2

George Eliot comments on the failures of Froude, who was otherwise much congratulated on his presentation of
Spinoza to the reading public. She sardonically admits her disdain for Froudes enthusiastic article to George
Combe, pettishly remarking that It is perhaps that prestige which has won such exaggerated praise at that of
Froudethat the article on the Ethics is the wisest word which has been spoken in my hearing for this long time
past. (GEL VIII 35). This can perhaps be understood as a protective defense of Lewes own work on Spinoza,
which was contemporaneous, and although also largely biographical (see his Biographical History of Philosophy,
and his article in the Fortnightly Review, the latter of which is a more colloquial and approachable version of the
chapter that appeared in the former). But it can also be seen as a substantial criticism of Froudes work, which she
later clarifies and substantiates in a letter to Herbert Spencer six months later: Froudes much talked of article on
Spinoza too I have read at last, and find it a mere sketch of his lifepicturesquely done but with the usual Froudian
sentimentality and false veneration. (GEL VIII 52). Froude, in this article published in the Westminster Review in
1855, is, perhaps guilty of gushing. It is not often, Froude writes, that many in this world lives a life so well
worth writing as Spinoza lived.he was one of the very best men whom these modern times have seen (219).
Froude moreover claims, Spinozas influence over European thought is too great to be denied or set aside, and if
his doctrines be false in part, or false altogether, we cannot do their work more surely than by calumny or
misrepresentationa most obvious truism, which no one living will deny in words, and which a century or two
hence perhaps will begin to produce some effects upon the popular judgment.The fact is, that [with] both friend
and enemy alike, there has been a reluctance to see Spinoza as he really was (221). Froudes self-congratulatory
tone here clearly rubs George Eliot the wrong way, and the fact that Froudes article repeats much of what Lewes
had already published elsewhere, both contributed to her rankling at Froude.

aesthetic and generic orientation in her novel-writing; and, as the dissertation is largely a
consideration of her fiction, the term realism achieves a primacy. This is not to say, of course,
that realism was a monolithic entity in nineteenth-century fiction; indeed, there are as many
versions of it as there are practitioners, and most authors claim to realism is grounded in an
individual credo, expressed or not, about its utility and value. But Dickenss realism grounded
in an acknowledgement of social complexity and the existence (however romanticized) of a
gradated social class structureis far different from George Eliots; Gaskells, too, is different:
she is even more aware of social divisions and inequalities, and is steeped in the religiosity she
carried forward from her childhood. Thackerays focuses on isolating the ridiculous in social
behaviors, and although most note that it tends toward the satirical, nevertheless imbues his
characters with psychological depth. Trollopes realism is perhaps the most straightforwardly
prosaic, inasmuch as it attends to the quotidian workings of workaday men, but it lacks a
coherent philosophical or social agenda. Sensation novelists like Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth
Braddon, and Ellen Wood all disavowed the stigma attached to their generic labors,
counterclaiming the mimetic truth of their representation of the more nefarious and exceptional
doings of men and women. George Eliots realism grows out of a more thorough and deeplyinvested philosophical purpose than her counterpartsher closest match in nineteenth-century
fiction might well be Tolstoy or Flaubert. And these philosophical investments are the secret to
her success, and also, in part, of her failure: readers frequently complain (more now, than then)
of the dense, allusive narratorial asides that interrupt the representations of concentrated,
interdependent societies.3 But George Eliots inextricable conjoining of philosophical purpose

Rebecca Mead, a New Yorker staff writer, has spent much time in the past two years interrogating why George
George Eliots novels have an enduring power, but also make readers go cold; her essay, Middlemarch and Me
explores the vexed relationship readers have with George Eliots work, and her forthcoming book-length work on
George Eliot promises even more depth regarding this oscillating, hot-and-cold relationship with readers.

and generic form require readers to approach her novels not merely for their aesthetic or social
value, but for the clarity, coherence, value, and force of her communication of philosophy.
Thus the relationship between form and contentrealism and its internally depicted
human relationshipstakes on a specific cast in readings of George Eliots fiction. The form of
her realism requires us to attend to both aspects jointly; and, moreover, since her philosophical
commitmentsas outlined frequently in her diaries and lettersalso suppose a deep and
interpenetrating relationship between reader and text, we must account for the effects of her text,
the ways that the text affects the reader. Affect is, moreover, the central term in Spinozas
Ethics (although as explained below, George Eliot translated it as emotion). The term affect
is favored by modern translators of Spinoza, who prefer it because of its denotation of action and
its transcendence of the psychological and soft specificity of emotion and, as several recent
theorists have noted, the word also permits a more generous sense of action and influence,
encompassing non-subjects, objects, systems, and ideologies.4 Affect concisely combines
considerations of action and reaction, action and reception, and presupposes, at the very least, an
actor and a recipient; and in doing so, in Spinozas formulation, it adequately sums up an ethical
philosophy by way of an investment in physics. Action, reaction; actor, recipient; there is no
aspect of the universe in his estimation that does not participate in this dynamic. Nature abhors a
vacuum, nothing is utterly at rest, change is forever occurring, impingement and intersection are

This claim encompasses a wide range of thinkers. First and chief among them, perhaps, is Raymond Williams, who
acknowledges that capitalism as a totality engenders structures of feeling, that is, begets affective orientations and
predispositions in its subjects. The late work of the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser takes into account his
hybrid form of aleatory materialism, which acknowledges the affective charge of phenomenological encounters
between subjects under capitalism. More recent hybrid thinkers like Teresa Brennan acknowledge that affect can be
generated by even impersonal systems; Warren Montag understands the ways in which affect can generate its own
affects, by way of Spinozas explanation of the imitation of affects; Brian Massumi works on the ways in which
affect itself can be, or become, virtual in relation to systems and nonhuman or collectivized actors; Jane Bennett
argues for the ways in which forces like the weather can be powerful affective agents; and both Lauren Berlant
and Kathleen Stewart acknowledge that politics, generally, frequently generates intense affects and affective
responses.

necessary. We are all of us composed of countless component parts, and we each constitute
composite components in larger systems than ourselves.
Ethics, the third term, is a direct gesture to the central influence of that work of Spinoza
on George Eliots hybrid philosophy; but also gestures to a genericized concern of the novel in
the nineteenth century, to say nothing of the secularity that such a term typically presupposes, a
secularism that is central to George Eliots unique understanding of Spinoza and philosophy
more generally. George Eliot, as will be explained below, saw philosophy (and within
philosophy, ethics) as a secular response to Christian dogma, and in her Victorian-bourgeois
preoccupation with right action and correct behavior, saw philosophy as providing the only
adequate other to others motive forcesreligion, or politics, or economics, etc.5 And ethics
circles back to the first term in the list, realism, which, for George Eliot is invested naturally
and intentionally with an ethical purpose and intent. Realism, for George Eliot, is the best means
by which to communicate to other linguistic human beings our essential human nature and our
inevitable impingements on others, and, given this, the necessary evolution of a self-conscious
understanding of our duty and obligation to others.
All three of these terms are not without complications, and although their use in this
project is outlined generally above, each term is embroiled in discursive squabbles and debates.
Realism, as acknowledged above, is no longer considered the monolithic aesthetic form that it
was once thought to be, and every scholar of realism and realist fictions is charged with
demarcating the placement of her pet texts in the spectrum of realism outlined by more senior
scholars. Ethics, too, is a fertile and complex crossroads in discourse, moreover, claimed and
5

Other nineteenth-century British novelists were as concerned with ethical action as George Eliot was, although
most other novelists were more at home couching ethical action under the banner of morality, or political/social
responsibility, economic imperatives, or Christian humanism. Amanda Claybaugh is one critic that looks at the
impulse to charity and morality couched in the nineteenth-century novel, in her work The Novel of Purpose:
Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World.

rejected by countless philosophers and theorists according to shifting discursive allegiances and
disagreements. As long as men have existed, the exact nature of right action has eluded us, as
much as the grounds upon which we act rightly, too, have eluded us. But, focused as this text is
on only one small branch of ethical philosophySpinozasthis dissertation does not concern
itself as explicitly with the debates so central to the discourse of philosophy.
The middle term, however, is a burgeoning bugbear of literary theory and scholarship,
and its multitudinous manifestations and permutations are of interest here. Although the concept
of affect has existed for many centuries, only very recently has the term come under the scrutiny
of humanities scholars, interested, in many cases, in finding alternatives to the hard-and-fast
analytical and logical buttresses of philosophy and theory inherited from Enlightenment
philosophy. Affect is seen as a tonic to left-brained systems that insist on the empirical nature
of the world, and affect emerges as a challenge to the patriarchal ideologies underpinning
discourse as a whole, which insist on the value of truth, fact, and empiricism as primarily
masculine values against the soft or feminine realm of emotion, feeling, and affect. In a war
waged historically and rhetorically at the dividing line of the head and the heart, where the
hearts value is romantic and intangible, and the labor of the mind is valued above all as logical,
rational and true, affect falls out of most considerations. Affect is perceived to be inherently
irrational, and, as weve inherited a discourse accustomed to working through the nature of the
world on the order of rational understanding, we have necessarily downgraded considerations of
affect as fluid, immaterial, intangible, capricious forces that, while they may be important in
determining action and reaction, nevertheless cannot be measured, and, as such, cannot be
spoken of with any earnestness or seriousness.

10

The inherent imprecision of the term affect is both its most liberating and its most
frustrating aspect. It can mean many thingsfrom actions to emotions to vibes. But the
disparate works that constitute, generically, the new field of study dubbed Affect Theory range
widely and indiscriminately over disciplinary boundaries (unsurprising, perhaps, in an era of the
humanities that advocates interdisciplinary intellectual labor). Two recent volumesPatricia
Cloughs volume The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social (2007) and Melissa Gregg and
Gregory J. Seigworths The Affect Theory Reader (2010)serve as important markers for the
failure (or refusal?) of affect theory to congeal or cohere. The former volumes primarily
postmodern essays range over technologies, immaterial labor, new media, the philosophy of
science, and cognitive sciences; most of the essays owe their affective content to Deleuzes
philosophy, which borrows its understanding of affect largely from Spinoza, with some
significant alterations. Cloughs volume, too, operates in the uneasy space that materializes
between the social sciences and humanities. The latter volume, The Affect Theory Reader, exists
more firmly in the realm of the humanities, but nevertheless also encompasses a wide range of
objects-of-critique and examination: from biomedia to states of war, from pedagogy to novels,
from after-work drinks to terrorism. Both volumes eschew any explicit foundation in philosophy,
although each volume intermittently explores the philosophical genealogy of the concept of
affect. Both volumes, moreover, generously permit their contributors to operate from whichever
framework of affect they deem relevant, in a move designed to demonstrate the anti-disciplinary
breadth of the concept of affect. And while these two opening salvos in the establishment of a
new disciplinary subfield are exciting in their generation of space and energy for proliferating
explorations, that generosity is also their greatest problem.

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The disciplines in which a concept of affect has particular reverberations are disparate:
political science, political theory, political philosophy, political economy; philosophy;
psychology; sociology; literary theory, literary criticism; education; public health; and many
more besides. Discovering the connective tissues among these disparate disciplines is worthy
labor, perhaps, but lengthy and prone to critique: any bridge built between these disciplines is
going to be stretched so taut as to bear no loads. And so, although much of the work emerging
under the umbrella term of affect is exciting and worthy work, staking a position within that
constellation is time-consuming; and this dissertation takes as its core the philosophy of Spinoza,
and his definition of the term affect.
Although George Eliot in her translation of the Ethics does not use the more modern term
affect favored by Edwin Curleys twentieth-century translation, she nevertheless clearly
understood the multiple valences of the term affectio in the Spinoza. 6 George Eliots first
intellectual laborbefore she wrote the reviews and essays for the Westminster Review from
which many critics derive intimations and hints of her aesthetic purposewas the work of
translation. Over the space of several years, she worked at, and completed, translations of
Spinozas Ethics and Tractatus Theologico-Politico (from medieval Latin), David Friedrich
Strausss The Life of Jesus, and Feuerbachs The Essence of Christianity (both from German).
The first two translations, which took her considerably longer than the latter two, never saw
publication in her lifetime. The latter were both published within her lifetime, and catapulted her
career in the direction of criticism and journalism. All four works influenced and informed both
her thought (as reflected in her letters, diaries and journalism) and her later fictional

Edwin Curleys multi-volume translation of Spinozas complete works, still awaiting the second volume, has
achieved a primacy among American scholars of Spinoza; this is abetted by the widely-available printing of his
translation of the Ethics for Penguin.

12

productions.7 Though each body of work has its distinct qualities and influences, taken
collectively, we can see how their disparate thoughts cohere and intersect to form a relatively
cohesive philosophical investment.
George Eliots translation of Strausss giant three-volume work was originally completed
and published in 1846. This particular text takes as its object of criticism the truth ascribed to
narrative accounts of Jesuss life and miracles as related in the Gospels of the New Testament.
But the problem is, as Strauss notes, that the orthodox view of this history became
superannuated earlier than the rationalisticbecause the former had ceased to satisfy an
advanced state of culture (Vol 1, ix). Strauss is commenting upon the fact that, in an era of
reason ushered in by the dawn and persistence of Enlightenment thought, the mythical,
superstitious view of the Bible no longer has currency; it must be superseded by Reason. In point
of fact, a main element in all religious records is sacred history, which invariably consists of
gross incongruities, that may be thus expressed: The divine cannot so have happened[or,] that
which has happened so cannot have been divine (Vol 1, 2). And so interpretations spring up that
seek desperately to make sense of the texts that they accept, by faith, to be incontrovertible. Such
interpretations range from attempting to establish the true record of the historical events in order
to ratify and verify the gospels accounts to those who do away with historical context and
ascribe a mythical, symbolic, or allegorical meaning to the events related in the Bible. What has
to be done, Strauss offers, is to sort out the verifiable-and-historic from the mythologized-andsymbolic; in so doing, it must be admitted that much of what appears to be supernatural or
unnatural in the Bible must be resolved or dispatched. The justification for his prodigious labors
7

It is a critical commonplace, as Christopher Lane implicitly notes, to accept that George Eliots fiction is deeply
philosophically invested. Avrom Flieschmans George Eliots Intellectual Life is one recent attempt (2011) to draft
an organic and coherent investigation of George Eliots intellectual influences and interests, and Jenny Uglows
biography (1987) is altogether less concerned with the minutiae of her life, and focuses more intensely instead on
George Eliots intellectual development.

13

rests in the admission that The boundary linebetween the historical and the unhistorical, in
records, in which as in our Gospels this latter element is incorporated, will ever remain
fluctuating and unsusceptible of precise attainmentIn the obscurity which criticism has
produced, by the extinction of lights hitherto held historical, the eye must accustom itself by
degrees to discriminate objects with precision (Vol 1, 95). What follows, then, is an exhaustive
work of critique that put George Eliot through her translation pacesit takes on Greek and
Hebrew versions of Scripture, over and above being written in stilted, nineteenth-century
German. The translation of this text required her, for two whole years, to translate the 1500
pages of German with the attendant passages in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, a colossal and
consuming intellectual task (Haight 53). The body of Strausss text is nothing if not exhaustive:
Volume 1 covers Jesuss childhood and his introduction to public life; Volume 2 introduces the
disciples, covers the idea of Jesus as Messiah, and ranges through his miracles; and Volume 3
covers the end of Jesuss life and the teachings espoused in the gospels.8 The text is absolutely
exhaustivea tiring, often tedious, but relentless work of criticism and close reading. 9
The upshot, however, is the failure of theology; even in a rational age, theology seeks to
resolve these incongruities using methods other than pure human reason. Strausss text seeks not
to undermine the validity of religions best feelings and uses, but rather seeks to break the
stranglehold that dogma and doctrine had on believers, who took the Gospels as truth (as in the
still-current phrase, the Gospel truth). Followers blindly accepted the most inconceivably self-

It is unnecessary to quote, in any particulars, Strausss analysis of the gospels; the method by which he
deconstructs the life of Jesus is particular to a fault, and each event in his life receives a comprehensive gloss of all
available gospel accounts with a careful attention to the language used in an effort to make sense of the disparities
between the accounts. The whole of the text is supremely un-quotable. Rarely does he surface from a consideration
of the particular to an account of the general labor that drives the work.
9
George Eliot dryly admits to Sara Hennell, I do not know one person who is likely to read the book through, do
you? (GEL I 218). The three-volume text is, perhaps, ultimately of interest to the Biblical exegete; students of
philosophy and of George Eliot will find the most fertile spaces of the text those that flank the work of criticism
the introduction and the conclusion.

14

contradictory accounts of Jesus life even while they endlessly debated inconsistencies. One
thing that most Christian faiths took for granted, however, was the validity of his teachings, and
this Strauss endorses as a general good. Accounts of the mission of the Son of God into the
world, being the highest proof of the love of God, was the most efficacious means of awakening
a return of love in the human breast, Strauss cites Augustine approvingly (Vol 3, 406). But for
the most part, in their translation of the essential teachings of Christ into doctrine, church
authorities were misled by their own limited rationalism; and church doctrine and dogma
evolved into a mass of contradictions and a trumpery of symbol and pageant, which had the
effect of alienating the common (rational) believer from the kernel of his faith. The rationalistic
view, which Strauss advocates, claims that, above all, [Jesus] has endeared himself to
mankindthat he has taught them a religion to which for its purity and excellence is justly
ascribed a certain divine power and dignity; and that he has illustrated and enforced this religion
by the brilliant example of his own life (Vol 3, 415). The rational view, then, like Feuerbach
who shortly follows and explicitly approves, is to adopt the anthropological view; but it is the
development of this view that brings rationalism into open war with the Christian faith,
because the latter cannot banish the mythical, supernatural, and miraculous from its vocabulary
of belief: it forms faiths cornerstone (Vol 3, 416). Strausss purpose, then, as outlined clearly
in his introduction, is to work honestly and assiduously at a clear-headed and analytical reading
of the text with an eye to affirming the morality of the Bible at the intentional cost of its
ostensibly empirically-affirmed truth. The truth of the lessons it seeks to conveyat least in
the New Testamentseemed to him above reproach when approached rationally. But choosing,
passively, to uphold the document as a historical or material record of a life was dangerously
wrong, and led to paradoxes that, if examined, could undermine the truth of religion as

15

practiced by believers (not that many of the faithful would ever attempt the sort of rigorous
critique he determined upon). So, ultimately, Strauss is a rationalist Hegelian anthropologist,
who urges that we accept that when Jesus dies, It is Humanity that dies, rises, and ascends to
heaven, for from the negation of its phenomenal life there ever proceeds a higher spiritual
life[the main idea of which is] that the negation of the merely natural and sensual life, which is
itself the negation of the spirit (the negation of negation, therefore,) is the sole way to true
spiritual life (Vol 3, 438). And so, although by Hegelian means which Feuerbach would at least
provisionally revise or reject, Strauss arrives at the core of his teaching: that Jesus is nothing
more than a reflection of mans relationship with man, by way of dialectical displacement. There
is value here for Strauss, as its net worth is measured by the moral value of Jesus teachings; but
the way at which we arrive at this end point is the result of centuries of distortion. George Eliot
does have some reservations about the particulars of Strausss argumentshe notes in a letter
that I am never pained when I think Strauss rightbut in many cases I think him wrong, as
every man must be in working into detail an idea which has general truth, but is only one
element in a perfect theory, not a perfect theory in itself (GEL I 203). Nevertheless, she do[es]
really like reading our Strausshe is so klar und ideenvoll (GEL I 218: clear and full of
ideas).
Strausss labor, then, accorded with George Eliots own life experience. She was reared
as a strict Evangelical, and was educated under those precepts, which, according to early
correspondants and biographical fragments, she endorsed enthusiastically. Her father was an
Evangelical devotee, a notable man in their community, whose doctrinal influence on George
Eliot as a youth was supplemental to the more practical education she received at school. Gordon
Haight remarks that Her intensive study of the Bible had laid a foundation for the rational

16

textual criticism which was to follow (29). But when she had finished her secondary education,
she thirsted for more; and her capacious intellect, noted often by her devoted teachers at the
school, needed more fodder, and the prospect of remaining in thrall to her father in the Midlands
struck her more and more as too restrictive. She required intellectual stimulation. So she sought
intellectual company, and found it; but these intellectuals assiduously watered the seeds of doubt
that had sprung up in George Eliots mind regarding the absolutely veracity of Evangelicalism.
The Brays, Charles and Caroline (nee Hennell), were a formative influence encouraging George
Eliots growing skepticism; Charles published in 1838 An Inquiry into the Origins of
Christianity, a text that predicts many of the more rigorously-established criticisms of Feuerbach
and Strauss (38). It was Charles Bray, who, using quotes from Spinoza in his own work, first
introduced George Eliot to the philosopher, but as Haight laconically states, She did not go far
with Spinoza at that time [1842] (52). Jenny Uglow notes that The history of George Eliot in
the 1840s is very largely an account of her sensitivity to all the vibrations of the period. At the
end of the decade, when she had returned to her task of translating Spinoza, and was reading
Thomas a Kempiss De Imitatione Christi with its cool air of the cloisters, she reviewed J. A.
Froudes Nemesis of Faith, an account of his loss of faith and the family crisis this caused which
must have reminded her, despite the very different setting, of her own experience (42). It was in
this milieutinctured by the death of her fatherthat George Eliot threw herself into translating
Spinozas Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (Haight 69).10 It was not, however, until the 1850s that

10

George Eliots first mention of translating Spinoza in her letters comes in a letter to Francis Watt, I feel that I
need the excuses of being engaged in a translation of a part of Spinozas works for a friend and of having had some
family trials for not returning them before. Haight speculates that the work in question is the Tractatus,
undoubtedly because of her burgeoning interest in scriptural criticism and analysis, citing corollary epistolary
evidence from a letter between Mrs. Bray and Sara Hennell (of 4 January 1843): Spinoza came from Dr. Brabant
and looked so temptingly easy that I grieved to let Mary Ann carry it off, for I am sure that I could understand his
Latin better than her English; but it would disappoint her. (GEL I 158). Six years later, she was still at her desultory
translation work, but she sought to excuse herself to her friends, the Brays, in a letter dated 1859: Spinoza and I
have been divorced for several months. My want of health has obliged me to renounce all application. I take walks,

17

George Eliot more comprehensively worked at translating the Spinoza. Spinoza was, at least for
a time, supplanted by her work at translating Feuerbach, which was advertised for publication as
early as June, 1853 (Haight 137).
The philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach owes much to the trail blazed by David Friedrich
Strauss. Strauss, participating in the spirit of German Kritik (doubly deployed and parodied by
Marx and Engels in their The Holy Family: Or, Critique of Critical Criticism), sought to
interrogate, rhetorically and analytically, the texts he took as his object, namely, the New
Testament; Feuerbach proclaims his own departure from that mode explicitly in his preface. But
whereas David Friedrich Strauss takes for his exclusive examination the relative empirical
truth of the Scriptures, as they describe the life of Christ, Feuerbach takes for his object of
critique the nature of religion, considered unto itself. Strauss takes for the object critique, in
Feuerbachs estimation, the System of Christian Doctrine and the Life of Jesus, i.e., dogmatic
Christianity, or rather dogmatic theology and instead, Feuerbach takes on Christianity in
general, i.e., the Christian religion, and consequently only Christian philosophy or theology
(xxii). So, as opposed to what he would characterize as Strausss simply historical analysis of
Christianity, Feuerbach authorizes a historical-philosophical analysis (xxi). Strausss work,
therefore, is a work of criticism, and Feuerbachs is, properly speaking, philosophy, although
Feuerbach does acknowledge that his work, like critique, is negative, destructive (xvi).
Religion, for Feuerbach, has been a damning influence on centuries of culture, encouraging
wrong-headed, idealist immateriality and reliance on supernatural metaphysical powers,
excusing man from taking control of his own actions and taking responsibility for himself and

play on the piano, read Voltaire, talk to my friends, and just take a dose of mathematics every day to prevent my
brain from becoming quite soft. There I am by no means eager to supersede any other persons labours, and Mr.
Chapman is absolved from observing any delicacy towards me about Spinoza or his translators (GEL I 321).

18

other men. Although neither Strauss nor Feuerbach were atheists, they did not dismiss wholesale
the prospective abolition of religion (McClellan 90-91).
Feuerbachs philosophy instigated a period of materialism in German philosophy, against
the idealism of Kant and others, and which directly led to the historical materialism of Marx, the
movements apogee, even as Marx himself charged Feuerbach with not going far enough.
George Eliots choice to translate Feuerbachs philosophy was a timely one; its initial
publication was in German in 1841, and George Eliots familiarity with it demonstrates her
currency in German philosophy; she worked at translating the text for a solid year, often
struggling with Feuerbachs tortured phraseology; she nevertheless admits that his text is
for a Germanconcise, lucid, and even epigrammatic now and then (GEL II, 153; 141).
Elizabeth Deeds Ermarthjoined by U. C Knoepflmacher in this estimationsingles out
Feuerbach as the single most useful work for interpreting George Eliots novels, although
Ermarth also acknowledges the Ethics as an important interlocutor for her fiction (1985; 25).
This is perhaps because of claims made by George Eliot herself, as in an 1854 letter to Sara
Sophia Hennell, wherein she states that with the ideas of Feuerbach I everywhere agree (GEL
II 153). George Eliot felt a keen sympathy with Feuerbachs interrogation of religious doctrines
and theology, and likewise sympathized with his methodical, intellectual attempt to undercut the
foundation of religion at the notion of God himself; where Strauss sought to disprove the
empirical truth of narratives of Jesuss lifeand did so thoroughly and analyticallyFeuerbach
is less concerned with squabbling over phrases and words and scenes, but rather with the nature
of religion itself. Before George Eliot undertook the translations of Feuerbach, it is clear that she
was amply familiar with the quality and nature of his thought. When Hennell noted that a mutual
friend, Mr. Noel, spoke slightingly of Feuerbachs work, George Eliot reacted with derision,

19

responding that he is not a reading man and, I know, has no clear idea of the contents of
Feuerbachs works (GEL II, 144).
In an earlier letter to Sara Sophia Hennell, whom George Eliot saw as a fellow-traveler in
auto-didactic intellectuality, George Eliot urges careful consideration of Feuerbachs Preface to
The Essence of Christianity, spurred by her ongoing translation of precisely that portion of the
text. She promises to send her translation of the Preface soon, and wishes that Hennell could
amuse herself by placing the German next to it; George Eliot speaks of the struggle of translating
Feuerbachs preface which, unlike the rest of the text (concise, lucid, and even epigrammatic),
reads like a caricature of the faults of German writing generally, one sentence is nearly a page
and a half long! I have done my best to save this from appearing in the English, but I wish you to
pay particular attention to the Preface and to mark everything which seems odd and does not
flow easily (GEL II 141). George Eliot took her work seriously, and her translation faithfully
and carefully renders even the most tortured German into readable English prose.11 All of this is
in the service of the fact that George Eliot believes that it is important that the preface should be
read (GEL II 141, original emphasis). She notes that Feuerbachs work is considered the book
of the ages there, but Germany and England are two countries, noting that the English mind is
slower to adopt challenges to its well-worn paths (GEL II 137). Indeed, the Preface contains
some of the most crystalline formulations of the ideas that Feuerbach develops in The Essence of

11

Susan Hill points out that Feuerbachs designation of his text as a translation [of the dogmatic Christian Bible]
and his subsequent exploitation of the idea that translations can be either faithful copies or interpretive re-creations
articulated for Evans one of the dilemmas she faced as Feuerbachs translator (639). In other words, Feuerbach
recognized the slipperiness of the interplay of subject (Bible) and activity (critique); and this complicated the act of
translation for George Eliot. Hill explains that translation studies has long been split into two camps: one wherein
translation is viewed as a simple operation of linguistic equivalence, and the other wherein translation is
considered to be a complex interpretive act in which the translator is not only transforming words but mediating
cultural values as well (637). In George Eliots remarks on the particular Germanity of Feuerbachs text, she
reveals how aware she is that she is moving from one philosophical heritage and cultural system to another, entirely,
and her letters reveal the penetrating insight with which George Eliot carefully navigated both positions on the work
of translation.

20

Christianity, but which would be shocking to the British Victorian reader. It is here that
Feuerbach proposes to resolve the enigma of the Christian religion (xiii) and proclaims himself
divorced from the idealism of Hegel, which generate[s] the object from the thought, and not
the other way around (xiv). He avows realism and materialism, and explains that he is nothing
but a natural philosopher in the domain of the mind (xiv). This materialism, so often unfairly
reduced in criticisms of Feuerbachs work as the materialism of the stomach (we are what we
eat),
does not regard the pen as the only fit organ for the revelation of the truth, but the eye and
ear, the hand and foot; it does not identify the idea of fact with the fact itself, so as to
reduce real existence to an existence on paper, but it separates the two[which] places
philosophy in the negation of philosophyand finds its highest triumph in the fact that to
all dull and pedantic minds, which place the essence of philosophy in the show of
philosophy, it appears to be no philosophy at all. (xv)
Feuerbachs explicit disavowal of Hegelian idealism lines him up firmly as a materialist
philosopher, and the passage above sounds compellingly close to George Eliots own estimation
of the value and labor of realist fiction. The idea that philosophy so practiced would appear to
most as no philosophy at all is an entre to George Eliots backdooring of philosophy in
literature; in both forms, the practice of philosophy formally rejects the appearance of
philosophy.
For Feuerbach, the very center of philosophy is the consideration of manman in his
immediate, real, and material life. Religion is the dream of the human mind, he argues,
insisting on its shadowy immateriality (xix). Man is the necessary consideration at the core of
religion; religion is not a metaphysical concern, but a concern of anthropology, a term Feuerbach

21

employs repeatedly. Feuerbach augments the methodology of phenomenology imported from


Hegel, but with the distinction that he does not aim to abstract the idea of man from the nature of
man. So for Feuerbach, the dawning of self-realization is not the progress toward the realization
of the Absolute Spirit in the consciousness of man, but realizing instead that the selfconsciousness of man is nothing other than a consciousness of self. But Feuerbach preserves the
dialectic of Hegel, although in an attenuated form, for he insists that Man is nothing without an
object but that the object to which a subject essentially, necessarily relates, is nothing else than
this subjects own, but objective nature (6). Man is, after all, himself at once I and thou (2)
and the object of mans self-consciousness, the absolute to man is his own nature (5) as man
is nothing without an object (4). Thus, consciousness is self-verification, self-affirmation, selflove, joy in ones own perfection, and not a process of Hegelian objectification and projection,
an alienation of the self from the self in the process of idealizing the abstracted, externalized
other-object (6). As a result of these premises, Feuerbach argues, and this is the very center of his
argument, that Religion, at least the Christian, is the relation of man to himself, or more
correctly to his own naturebut a relation to it, viewed as a nature apart from its own (14).
Therein lies Christianitys fundamental error: it imagines that that relationship with the self,
which could be celebrated as self-affirmation and self-love, is rendered external and alien in its
doctrine. Feuerbach professes incredulity that religion could so long hold that God was, in fact,
something other than, or superior to, man; Manand this is the mystery of religionprojects
his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of
himself thus converted into a subject (29-30).12 This obfuscates the fact that All the attributes

12

Feuerbach later takes on this concept as it relates to the carrot and the end of the Christian stickthat of heaven.
Christians, he frets, are driven to negative [themselves], but only to posit [themselves] again, and that in a glorified
form: [they] negative this life, but only, in the end, to posit it again in the future life (182). But like the concept of
God itself, the image of heaven is a mystified sort of relationship with the self and the real world; and that

22

of the divine nature are, therefore, attributes of human nature (14) and that God is man, man is
God, the epigrammatic and straightforward thesis statement argued in the preface (xvi). All of
this pushes Feuerbach in the direction of a pragmatic, political, materialist ethics. Insofar as God
is, if understood aright, the projection of mans self into the position of an external object, and
thus rendered a subject for whom man is merely an object, and if we were to understand that God
is nothing more than man, then we might understand that the ethical imperatives buried in the
service of serving God would be better directed toward mans fellow man.
In constructing a tentative ethics, Feuerbach inspired the young Marx to redress the
wrongs of those suffering under capitalism, and likewise imperfectly invoked Spinozas ethical
philosophy, with which George Eliot also so clearly agrees. And to do so, Feuerbach borrows the
epochal invocation of Strausss concept of species, a term designed to refer to man generally
as a singular sort of being belonging indiscriminately to the same family of creatures.13 The
ending of The Essence of Christianity encapsulates this ethical imperative in an elusive form:

mystification is damaging and dangerous: The future life is the present in the mirror of the imaginationThe future
life is the present embellished, contemplated through the imagination, purified from all gross matter; or, positively
expressed, it is the beauteous present intensified (182). But this projection, whose language George Eliot perhaps
borrows in her defence of realism (that faulty mirror) is a fundamentally, philosophically falsehood, and an
immature one, at that.
13
David McClellan explains the genealogy thusly:
It is also worth while enlarging on what Feuerbach says about the term species (Gattung). The word had
been popularized by D. F. Strauss who, in the well-known conclusion to his Das Leben JesuThis is taken
up by Feuerbach in his writings before Das Wesen des Christentums and then in that work in introduced at
the very beginning to suggest how man is to be distinguished from other animals: man is conscious of
himself not only as an individual, but also as a member of the human species. Feuerbach then applies the
idea to religion by saying that God is really the perfected idea of the species viewed as an individual: God
embraces all perfections as the species is capable of doing. The fundamental unity of mankind that the idea
of a species presupposes arises from the fact that men are not self-sufficient creatures; they have very
different qualities, so it is only together that they can form the perfect man. For Feuerbach all knowledge
comes to man as a member of the human species and when man acts as a member of the human species his
action is qualitatively different. His fellow human beings make him conscious of himself as a man, they
form his consciousness and even the criterion of truth. The species, says Feuerbach, is the last measure
of truthwhat is true is what is in agreement with the essence of the species, what is false is what disagrees
with it. The idea of God only arises because the human species has not yet realized its own perfection.
After Das Wesen des Christentums Feuerbach no longer used the word species but replace it with
community and also tended to speak about the relations of two people viewed apart from the rest of
society. (91)

23

The necessary turning-point of history is therefore the open confession, that the
consciousness of God is nothing else than the consciousness of the species; that man can
and should raise himself only above the limits of his individuality, and not above the
laws, the positive essential conditions of his species; that there is no other essence which
man can think, dream of, imagine, feel, believe in, wish for, love and adore as the
absolute, than the essence of human nature itself. (270)
In this manner, we are to transcend the egoism we adhere to essentially in order to recognize that
the energy expended in the glorification of God as an external object of adoration is nothing
other than our collective consciousness as a species, and which we participate with all other men
in constructing. If we were capable of doing this, then we could raise ourselvesabove the
limits of our individuality, and become open to sympathetic, ethical action towards human
others.14 For where man is in earnest about ethics, they have in themselves the validity of divine
power (274). And the attribution to Feuerbach of a notion of sympathy is merely an awkward
sort of translation inherent in Feuerbachs own philosophy, inasmuch as the praxis by which
Feuerbach encourages us to practice ethical action is through the mechanism of love; The
highest idea on the standpoint of religion is, he admits, that God does not love, he is himself
love (153). Thus considered, intercourse (not meant, exclusively, although in part, in the
sexual sense) ameliorates and elevatesLove especially works wonders[and] is nothing else
than the self-consciousness of the species as evolved within the difference of sex (155-156). All
of this leads to the sweeping conclusion, ethically-centered, that
14

Catherine Gallagher, in her sensitive reading of realism in George Eliots novels, demarcates the distance between
realist literatures insistence on type and the leap made from the representation of type to the embodied human
reader, and she invokes the contrast between Feuerbachs species-being, which is always embodied particularity,
and those modes of individualization that create aloofness from ones kind, a turn toward the physiological
[which] threatens to close the genre-defining gap between type and instance by redefining both (72). The
implications for reading George Eliot, then, are that Feuerbachs insistence on embodied particularity infiltrates
George Eliots notion of what realism is capable of representingand the ethical implications of that speciesbeing therefore troubles the traditional reading of realistic literatures failures of mimesis.

24

In love, the reality of the species, which otherwise is only a thing of reason, an object of
mere thought, becomes a matter of feeling, a truth of feeling; for in love, man declares
himself unsatisfied in his individuality taken by itself, he postulates the existence of
another as a need of the heart; he reckons another as part of his own being; he declares
the life which he has through love to be the truly human life, corresponding to the idea of
man, i.e., of the species. The individual is defective, imperfect, weak, needy; but love is
strong, perfect, contented, free from wants, self-sufficing, infinite; because in it the selfconsciousness of the individuality is the mysterious self-consciousness of the perfection
of the race. (156)
This rather succinctly forms the backbone of the ethics of Feuerbach as conceived through the
filter of his primary object, the perversions inherent in religion. No one would deny that
Feuerbachs formulation of ethics accords with George Eliots everywhere, and we smile at her
youthful assertion that she everywhere agrees with Feuerbach, if only because of the force and
clarity of the above passagewhich George Eliot, it strikes the reader, adapts and adopts as her
mission statement in Chapter 17 of Adam Bede, considered below. But this interpersonal
impingement, so well celebrated in the act of loving, is trusted by Feuerbach to be sufficient for
the rational man to turn his actions to the benefit of these other humans. If that were the case,
then man, as rational as he is, would naturally do so, it seems. And if feeling, the core of
Feuerbachs philosophy (as opposed to hyper-rationality and self-alienating cognition), were
truly the undeniable beating heart of mans actions, then we would not need to be apprised of the
matter. This is perhaps where Spinoza is more acute and searching than Feuerbach, and, although
ignored longer than Feuerbach was celebrated, ultimately, more correct.15

15

It would be remiss not rehearse the most famous critique of Feuerbach, which strikes at the core of his loveliest
sentiments. It would be foolishness to deny the beauty and force of the paean to love above, but it must be admitted

25

George Eliots translations of Strausss The Life of Jesus and Feuerbachs The Essence of
Christianity are still in print today (the former, published by Continuum in 2006, and the latter,
published in multiple editions). Both are accepted as the standard translations of those works
from German into English, evidence of George Eliots tremendous skill in the difficult art of
translation. George Eliots translations of Spinoza never saw the light of day, however, in spite
of the fact that during her lifetime discussions and appreciations of Spinozas work increasingly
came to the fore. The root of their marginalization is a disagreement that sprung up between
Lewes and Henry Bohn, the publisher who had promised to publish the translations; Lewes
insisted, without proof, that Bohn had promised 75, and the latter insisted he had agreed only to
50. The result was an impasse that escalated into a heated epistolary exchange (collected
helpfully by Gordon Haight in the eighth volume of the Letters), and resulted in the manuscript
being consigned to a drawer, discovered only in the organization of her papers after her death,

that the image is insufficient, a dream of reality and not realitysomething that Feuerbach unconsciously admits
when he grants that because men do not know religion as projections of self, they fail to realize the vision above.
Marxs Theses on Feuerbach constitute, still, the most striking critique of Feuerbachs philosophy, borne of an
earnest and endearing respect for his philosophy. Marxs critique is that Feuerbach trusts too much to the power of
mans sensuous experience, but that he fails to outline a specific program by which the subject becomes conscious
of himself. Indeed, even in the passage that closes out Feuerbachs work, in which he insists that man raise himself
above individuality, but not above laws, Marx argues, misses the pointwe dont need philosophy, he argues in the
most famous thesis, for it has only heretofore interpreted the world, when the point is to change it. Changing the
world requires an understanding of material reality not as the relationship between individuals and civil society
that is the failure of the old materialismbut rather of human society or social humanity, the foundation of the
realization of social-ethical political action (or revolutionary/practical-critical praxis, in Marxs language). Marx
Wartofsky ratifies Marxs reading of Feuerbach when he insists that
Feuerbachs sensationalistic empiricism is as close as he comes to materialism, and it remains a
sensationalistic materialism, though it promises and suggests more. His theory of sensation is an
enlightened and advanced theory, far beyond that of eighteenth-century empiricism, and more directly akin
to the subtle and advanced views of Diderot. In this sense, it is a viable corrective and guide to the
simplistic empiricist sensationalism of much of contemporary psychology, and is related to such
contexualist and organicist views as that of J. J. Gibson and to the still rich suggestions of Dewey. But
insofar as Feuerbachs sensationist materialism fails to be adequate to concrete historical contexts, it falls
short of being an adequate materialist epistemology. And insofar as his anthropologism- his insistence on
the human origin and derivation of all religious and philosophical categoriesfails to see these categories
in their concrete historical evolution, it too falls short of being an adequate materialist anthropology. (2526)

26

and, luckily, not destroyed by Cross, who, we know, edited much of what he discovered upon
his wifes death.
George Eliot was not alone in her interest in Spinoza in the nineteenth century: there
were several notable forays into Spinozas thought, especially as it might prove a tonic to
religious dogma or utilitarian principles. Dorothy Atkins notes that Lewes, George Eliot,
Matthew Arnold, and J. A. Froude all worked out Spinozas philosophy in public forums and
critical essays; and two major translations of Spinozas work, by R. H. M. Elwes and by William
Hale White, emerged at the tail end of the nineteenth century (7). The latter, Atkins notes, was
explicitly motivated by his relationship with George Eliot to translate and study Spinoza. All of
these thinkers join notable British romantics like Wordsworth and Shelley, who both studied
Spinozas philosophy, and worked to incorporate foundational elements into their own poetic
production.16 But, as mentioned above, it was not until 1981 that George Eliots translation of
The Ethics (and not the Tractatus) saw print.17 Accordingly, there exists almost no work at the

16

Marjorie Levinson is doing remarkable work on the intersection of major British romantic poets and the influence
of Spinozas thought on their work. In one such article, A Motion and a Spirit: Romancing Spinoza, she carefully
works out how echoes of Spinozas philosophical terms reverberate in the poetry of William Wordsworth. One of
the concerns that she seeks to address in reading Spinoza into Wordsworth is to chart the presence of an active and
pointed cultural engagement in poems that seem to lack a polemical element in several cases to lack a propositional
content altogether (367). More than this, it is important for students of eighteenth and nineteenth century studies
not to take one of the truisms of studies of philosophy too seriouslythat after Spinozas death, his work was
flushed out of philosophical discourse or more or less ignored or not taken seriously. To this end, she points to
Jonathan Israels study Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750, as revivifying
evidence that his ideas had a sort of common currency in intellectual circles despite the violent and critical reception
of his work in his lifetime. She argues that by reading Spinoza into Wordsworth and other Romantic poets, we can
anchor claims of materialism to materialist philosophy (370-372). Levinsons work, inasmuch as it promises a more
thorough engagement with Spinoza, is promising, and bears on the sort of labor I seek to perform in this dissertation.
Her more recent article, On Being Numerous, cannily reads Spinoza as a literary critic, as she brings his
philosophy to bear on Wordsworths I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. Lewes was also a prescient reader of the
connection between the Romantics and Spinoza; in his Westminster Review article of 1843, he remarks on the
similarities between the figures of Spinoza and Shelley: Like the young and energetic Shelley, who afterwards
imitated him, [Spinoza] found himself an outcast in this busy world, with no other guides through it perplexing
labyrinths than sincerity and self-dependence (199).
17
Thomas Deegans article George Eliot, George Henry Lewes and Spinozas Tractaus Theologico-Politicus is an
excellent examination of the circumstances surrounding the (albeit mild) popularization of George Eliots translation
of the Ethics in contrast to the relative absence of commentary on her translation of the TTP. The story of George
Eliots extensive involvement with Spinozas Tractatus needs to be told, he asserts, as it reveals how extensively

27

intersection of Spinoza and George Eliot, although increasingly scholars are looking toward that
juncture to provide new insights into George Eliots work.
Lewes, of course, was likely the most direct influence on George Eliots long-standing
interest in Spinoza,18 and was certainly one of the primary impetuses in her eventual completion
of the translations. Lewes, a bit of a Victorian dilettante in his prodigious intellectual labor,
although interested in Spinozas thought, was just as inspired by accounts of his life and
biography. In the Biographical History of Philosophy, Lewes leads with a story about how he
had come to discover Spinozas philosophy in an intellectual circle at the feet of a passionate
and learned Jew. In his Westminster Review article, he entreats the readers sympathy to
Spinozas philosophy by way of invoking his life: It is invigorating to contemplate Spinozas
life. There is a heroic firmness traceable in every act of his life, worthy of our meditation;
there is a perpetual sense of mans independence, worthy all imitation (201). Lewes came to
Spinoza in his youth, but his interest deepened as he worked at his biography of Goethe, who
proclaimed a great fondness for Spinoza. Lewes disavowed, although not absolutely, a complete
affinity with Spinoza, but his presence haunted the pair, attending them even in a visit to The
Hague, which was the seed of George Eliots Daniel Deronda: We looked about for the very
Portuguese synagogue where Spinoza was nearly assassinated as he came from worship. But it
no longer exists. There are no less than three Portuguese synagogues nowvery large and
handsome. And in the evening we went to see the worship there. Not a woman was present, but
of devout men not a few, curious reversal of what one sees in other temples. The chanting and
George Henry Lewes was involved in this Spinoza translation project, which stemmed from their shared interest in
Spinoza, and which began for each of them long before they met (1).
18
Thomas Deegan remarks in a short article expanded in his prefatory material to the published monograph of
George Eliots translation of the Ethicsthat there was something like a collaboration on the act of translating
Spinoza between Lewes and George Eliot. He remarks, for instance, on the presence of his notes in the margins of
the manuscript, and that the interleaf pages demarcating the various sections of the Ethics are in his hand; and he
moreover calls our attention to the similarities between the passages Lewes had translated for his 1843 Westminster
Review article and the final manuscript translation of George Eliots.

28

the swaying about of the bodiesalmost a wrigglingare not beautiful to the sense, but I fairly
cried at witnessing this faint symbolism of a religion of sublime far-off memories (GEL IV
298).
Dorothy Atkins, more or less initiating the joint study of Spinoza and George Eliot in
1978, remarks that hitherto, Critics who briefly mention Spinoza in their discussions of the
moral backgrounds of George Eliots novels limit his influence to his broad doctrine of
pantheism. Their assumptions seem valid because of George Eliots well-known regard for
Wordsworths dedication to nature which, like Coleridges, was derived from Spinoza through
the German metaphysicians (3). But such critical attempts to marry Spinoza and George Eliot
vis--vis his presumed pantheism are immediately and implicitly off the mark, as they take for
granted the errant commonplace that Spinoza was a pantheist at allan understanding of his
work that mistakes his concept of immanence for pantheism. Such critics are to be forgiven, on
some level, as Spinozas presumed pantheism was frequently remarked upon in his own era, and
was often cited as an explanation of his ostracism. But such critics, Atkins continues, are
nevertheless also off the mark for their mistaken belief that even that (wrongly-deduced)
pantheism was the primary node of interest for George Eliot. Instead, she claims, Eliot did not
adopt from Spinoza superficial aspects of a pantheistic credo, but instead took from him a
sophisticated ethical system grounded in the belief that all reality is of the same substance (3),
or, in other words, his foundational, a priori claim of immanence. Indeed, though biographers of
George Eliot have long acknowledged that she spent quite a bit of her intellectual development
translating Spinozas work, they share in the critical blackout regarding his influence on her
work; at best, these biographers gesture vaguely toward the philosophical underpinnings of her

29

work, or make do with a mention.19 Leslie Stephen, in the first important biography of George
Eliot after Joseph Crosss three-volume biography, makes a great to-do about the philosophical
depth and breadth of George Eliots fiction, but shies away entirely from elucidating in
meaningful detail what these impingements are. Margaret Crompton in 1960 makes do with a
reference to George Eliots translation work. Gordon Haight, the acknowledged doyen of George
Eliot studies, staked a claim to the field of George Eliot biography for many years, and does a
thorough job of correcting the faults of Crosss biography; though he relatively thoroughly
remarks upon George Eliots translation work, he does not adequately plunge into the
ramifications of Spinoza in George Eliots works in a productive waybeyond his suggestion
that her translation of Spinoza was merely an interlude that demonstrated her silent
collaboration with Lewes (199), and which he organizes under the rubric of George Eliots
need to be loved. Jenny Uglows 1987 critical biography of George Eliot is more alive to the
undergirding tropes of her fiction as they abut her life, but remains mostly quiet about Spinoza.
Rosemarie Bodenheimers 1996 biography takes as its starting point a close reading of Haights
collected letters, and points more closely to the developing strains that emerge from an
intertextual reading of her life and output, but also minimizes the influence of Spinoza.
Rosemary Ashtons 1998 biography although more readable than most, ultimately attributes
George Eliots interest in Spinoza to a desire to assist Lewes in his work on Goethe, although she
does note that the work was particularly congenial to her as it deduced the moral life as a
necessary corollary of human needs (130). But nowhere does Ashton continue to insist on the
formative impact Spinozas thought had on her work. Kathryn Hughes, in her 1999 George

19

Avrom Fleishman, for instance, makes the weak claim that It is impossible to state with confidence which tenets
of the Tractatus attracted or repelled George Eliot, but her interest in translating itsuggests a broad measure of
approval (35). His generalization here is characteristic of the few studies of George Eliot and Spinoza, even Atkins;
it gestures toward the fertile space of intersection, but backs away from particulars.

30

Eliot: The Last Victorian, is alive to the trends in George Eliot biographies, and though her text
is sensitive to George Eliots intellectual development, she still comes up short. And indeed, as if
rounding out the bunch, Avrom Fleishmans George Eliots Intellectual Development, published
in 2011, seeks to more actively sketch the component parts of George Eliots thought, but
glosses over her philosophical translations, consigning them to a more-or-less prefatory chapter
to her fictional output, which he reads much more closely without regard to the intertextual arc
of her work.
Arriving at her translations of Spinoza from Feuerbach and Strauss, we can see
immediately the fitness of her translation of the Tractatus Theologico-Politico. Much like
Strauss and Feuerbach, Spinoza takes as his object of critique long-held, dogmatic interpretations
of scripture. Feuerbach, although, disavowed any likeness to Spinoza in the Essence of
Christianity when he rejected Spinozas concept of God, but such a rejection is founded in longstanding misreadings of Spinozachief among them that promulgated by Hegel (as critiqued
thoroughly by Pierre Macherey).20 And, indeed, Feuerbach and Spinoza share a materialism
which few philosophers have acknowledged, save Plekhanov. Plekhanov remarks persuasively
that there can be no doubt that Feuerbach was as much of a Spinozist as Diderot was in his
time, primarily because for Feuerbach, as for Spinoza, Nature, according to Feuerbach, is the
secret, the true meaning of Spinozism. What is it, on closer examination, that Spinoza
logically or metaphysically calls Substance, and theologically God? Nothing else but Nature.
This is Spinozas strong point; herein lie his historical significance and merit. (Nature is

20

Macherey argues that the Spinoza that Hegel cites in the Logic (and other places) is a strategic misreading of
Spinoza that gives credence to the originality of Hegels dialectic. It is necessary [for Hegel] to pass through
Spinoza, because it is in his philosophy that the essential relationship between thought and the absolute is
developed (13), but that Spinoza haunts the Hegelian system throughout its unfolding (24). Ultimately,
philosophy can only become possible by passing through Spinoza, and so the symptomatic absence of Spinoza
in Hegel is perversely crucial to the development of Hegels philosophy.

31

Feuerbachs secret, too. G.P.)21 Feuerbach, even as he admits of affinity to and shares in
Spinozas deification of Nature, nevertheless seeks to distance himself from Spinoza on the
grounds that Spinoza cannot let go of the notion of theology. Plekhanov argues elsewhere that
Feuerbachs humanism proved to be nothing else but Spinozism disencumbered of its
theological pendant, and that Spinoza eliminated the dualism of God and Nature, since he
declared that the acts of Nature were those of God. However, it was just because he regarded the
acts of Nature to be those of God, that the latter remained, with Spinoza, a being distinct from
Nature, but forming its foundation. He regarded God as the subject and Nature as the predicate.
A philosophy that has completely liberated itself from theological traditions must remove this
important shortcoming in Spinozas philosophy, which in its essence is sound. Away with this
contradiction!, Feuerbach exclaimed. Not Deus sive Natura but aut Deus aut Natura is the
watchword of Truth. This disencumbering of Spinoza by Feuerbach of his theological
pendant has the effect of revealing, at last, its true and materialist content.22 Indeed, Spinoza
is perhaps constrained by the theological niceties of his time and the atmosphere (even in the
Netherlands, where he sought refuge after escaping the Inquisition in Spain), both of which look
deeply askance at challenges to the Judeo-Christian order.23 Thusly he advocates that everyone
should be free to choose for himself the foundations of his creed, and that faith should be judged
only by its fruits; each would then obey God freely with his whole heart, while nothing would be
publicly honored save justice and charity (TTP 10). But even looking closely at the claim

21

Plekhanov, Bernstein and Materialism (1898):


http://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1898/07/bernsteinmat.html
22
Plekhanov, Fundamental Problems of Marxism (1907):
http://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1907/fundamental-problems.htm. Antonio Negri ratifies Plekhanovs
reading by suggesting that Feuerbach was perhaps the acutest reader of Spinozas absolute materialism (1991; 4).
23
Antonio Negri, in his study of Spinoza The Savage Anomaly, performs the work of historical materialism by
reading Spinozas philosophy as a production of the larger cultural, social, religious, and national mores by which he
was surrounded and formed. Yirmiyahu Yovel provides a similar analysis to other ideological ends in his twovolume exploration of the psychoanalytical ramifications of Spinozas life and work.

32

hereSpinozas theological pendantone sees the anarchic and critical principle that
undergirds his ambivalent endorsement of faith and theology. Sure, one should feel free to
adhere to a faith, but one does at ones own risk when one adopts any of the available creeds;
and, moreover, there is a none-too-subtle urging of the free man to consider his own personal
admixture of Judeo-Christian beliefs. And there is the danger, too, that the faithful will become
as the faithful: When people declare, as all are ready to do, that the Bible is the Word of God
teaching man true blessedness and the way of salvation, they evidently do not mean what they
say; for the masses take no pains at all to live according to the Scripture, and we see most people
endeavoring to hawk about their own commentaries as the word of God, and giving their best
efforts, under the guise of religion, to compelling others to think as they do (TTP 98).
In spite of these minor differences, Strauss, Feuerbach, and Spinoza all share the common
goal of breaking the unintellectual stranglehold that single-minded adherence to scriptural
teachings has on the faithfuland which has had such a detrimental effect over the course of
human history (as Spinoza could attest). Like Feuerbach and Strauss, Spinoza worries that The
human mind is readily swayed by this or that in times of doubt, especially when hope and fear
are struggling for the mastery (TTP 3) such hope and fear which later come to occupy a
central position in his glossary of the affects in The Ethics. Hope and fear both cloud the rational
minds ability to reckon clearly with the world as it is, and incline us to construct for ourselves
images and outcomes that negatively affect us. And because hope and fear are both knowledgeoccluding affects, Spinoza urges us to consider that the Bible has nothing in common with
philosophy, in fact, that Revelation and Philosophy stand on totally different footings; even as it
might prescribe ethical action, it does so on the premise of divine revelation and cloaked in
symbol and parable, and is therefore, unclear or mystified (TTP 9). Indeed, when one considers

33

that the first level of knowledge as enumerated in The Ethics is that which is grounded in
superstition, hearsay, insufficient information, and swayed by passions, this knowledge is, in a
way, mutilated, confused, or without order for the intellect (Ethics.II.P40.S2); then the Bible,
as attended to by the faithful, belongs to the realm of knowledge that cannot effect ethical
actions. Philosophy, by contrast, is ultimately rationaland as rational, so reasonableand as
reasonable, therefore more attuned to adequate ideas; as attuned to adequate ideas, more likely to
engender ethical action.
Hearsay and prophesy are the unfortunate foundations of religious belief, Spinoza argues.
A prophet is one who interprets the revelations of God to those unable to attain to sure
knowledge of the matters revealed, and therefore can only apprehend them by simple faith (TTP
13). This jab at the unthinking faithful predicts Strausss earnest anxieties about his fellowChristians and Feuerbachs castigation of the faithful. If only, Spinoza argues, man were capable
of being reasonable, there would be no need to interpose prophesy and superstition, since
prophecy really includes ordinary knowledge[which] is common to all men as men, and rests
on foundations which all share (13). And, after all, if we imagine God to be all-powerful, why
do we insist on believing that he would choose such imperfect means of communication as
prophesy and sign (14)? For prophecy and sign cannot afford certainty, inasmuch as
imagination does not, in its own nature, involve any certainty of truth (28), and a mans true
happiness [here echoing what he says at greater length in The Ethics] consists only in wisdom,
and the knowledge of the truth (43). And, as without God nothing can exist or be conceived, it
is evident that all natural phenomena involve and express the conception of God as far as their
essence and perfection extend, so that we have greater and more perfect knowledge of God in
proportion to our knowledge of natural phenomena, and vice versa: the greater our knowledge

34

of natural phenomena, the more perfect is our knowledge of the essence of God (TTP 59).24
And so knowledge and reason must be upheld if one seeks to know God; and Nature (as in
Spinozas formula deus sive natura) is the proper location of God, in keeping with immanence.
Seeking such knowledge through means otherwise obscured by imagination, rhetoric,
presumptive prophecy, the assumption of a privileged relationship with the divinethese are the
wrong routes to the knowledge we ultimately seek in any adherence to God. Instead, we must
permit the range of our reason and cognition to enable our relationship with and knowledge of
the divine.
Spinoza reminds us, then, that any consideration of scripture, especially if it is believed to
be the word of God, is ultimately a consideration of nature: For as the interpretation of nature
consists in the examination of the history of nature, and therefrom deducing definitions of natural
phenomena on certain fixed axioms, so Scriptural interpretation proceeds by the examination of
Scipture, and inferring the intention of its authors as a legitimate conclusion from its
fundamental principles (TTP 99). And so the faithful adherents who seek the verification and
collusion of scriptural precepts outside of the linguistic environment of the ideas contained
therein are prone to grave error. Strauss leads the charge in discharging these pernicious

24

Feuerbach later reflects, in The Essence of Christianity (1851), that Nature is not only the first and original object
but also the lasting source, the continuous, although hidden background of religion. The belief that God, even when
he is imagined as a supernatural being, different from Nature, is an object existing outside of man, an objective
being, as the philosophers call it; this belief has its only source in the fact, that the object being, which really exists
outside of man, viz., the world or Nature, is originally God You are obliged to imagine God as an existing being,
only because you are obliged by Nature herself to pre-suppose the existence of Nature as the cause and condition of
your existence and consciousness, and the very first idea connected with God is nothing but the very idea that he is
the existence preceding your own and presupposed to it (8). If we persist in believing that, regardless, God is a
being separate from Nature, Feuerbach offers, along distinctly Spinozist lines (shades of his geometrical precision)
that But if, instead of Nature, God is our preserver, Nature is a mere disguise of the Deity, and, therefore, a
superfluous and imaginary being, just as vice versa, God is a superfluous and imaginary being if Nature preserves
us (16). In other words, if we cannot stomach the idea that Nature is the first and last cause of our being, and we
insist instead on preserving the nature of God as a distinct being, then we are paradoxically rendering God irrelevant
to our natures by ascribing to him a sort power inferior to that which Nature wields. And so, The belief in God is
either the belief in Nature (the objective being) as a human (subjective) being, or the belief in the human essence as
the essence of Nature (64).

35

interpreters, preferring instead to resolving the contradictions contained within the Scriptures.
Spinoza cautions us to stick to the text of the Bible, and offers some suggestionsover and
above the repetition of his refrain to seek to understand the nature of God as we seek knowledge
of Naturesuggestions that accord with basic literary theory precepts accepted in the twentyfirst century. We should not confound precepts which are eternal with those which served only
a temporary purpose, for instance, something we can best do by ascertaining as well as possible
the life, the conduct, and the studies of the author of each book, who he was, what was the
occasion, and the epoch of his writing, whom did he write for, and in what language, to say
nothing of its contemporary reception.25 And we must also endeavor to ensure, as much as
possible, that the text to which we have access has not been polluted by sacrilegious
interpositions (103). All of this requires patience and open-minded, rational thinking; and
Spinoza moves on to prescribe a careful agenda to save us from our misguided attempts to
obfuscate the meanings of Scripture.
As with Feuerbach and Strauss, it is easy to see why Spinozas philosophy reverberated
with George Eliot. It encouraged her to approach the strictures of dogmatic Christianity with the
instrument of her mindher best tool and infallible source of self-esteem and self-knowledge. It
also allows her to preserve the best parts of the Bible which must have been so obvious to her
father and other, pious instructors from her youth, and, indeed, to any clear-headed reader of the
Bible. Therefore, as the supreme right of free thinking, even on religion, is in every mans
power, and as it is inconceivable that such power could be alienated, it is also in every mans
power to wield the supreme right and authority of free judgment in this behalf, and to explain
and interpret religion for himself (TTP 119), for, theology thus understood, if we regard its
25

In this instance, Spinoza reads like Walter Benn Michaels, or a contemporary intentionalist-historicist; he urges
readers to consider the dense history from which the texts emerge in order to discern the intention of the author and
his authorship.

36

precepts or rules of life, will be found in accordance with reason; and, if we look to its aim and
object, will be seen to be in nowise repugnant thereto, wherefore it is universal to all men (195).
George Eliots abiding belief in reason and rationalism gives strength to Spinozas
encouragement of the preservation and exaltation of our reason. The trajectory of the Tractatus is
towards a consideration of governancemore in keeping with the Ethics and the Political
Treatisebut the kernel of good governance is the preservation and celebration of reason, a
natural outgrowth of his exhortations regarding scripture.
These first three texts, therefore, all work together and cohere in such a way as to
undermine the irrationality of religion and scriptural dogma, and to challenge the pervasive ways
in which theology and religion have ensnared the common man in an irrational, unthinking
obedience to precept and authority. And although Spinozas Ethics is a natural growth from
those considerations, it merits independent analysis due to the wider-ranging breadth of its
system. George Eliot later, in 1859, reflected on the cohesive rejection of Christianity that these
three translations appear to point to:
I have not returned to dogmatic Christianityto the acceptance of any set of doctrines as
a creed, and a superhuman revelation of the Unseenbut I see in it the highest
expression of the religious sentiment that has yet found its place in the history of
mankind, and I have the profoundest interest in the inward life of sincere Christians in all
ages. Many things that I should have argued against ten years ago, I now feel myself too
ignorant and too limited in moral sensibility to speak of with confident disapprobation:
on many points where I used to delight in expressing intellectual difference, I now delight
in feeling an emotional agreement. On that question of our future existence, to which you
allude, I have undergone the sort of change I have just indicated, although my most

37

rooted conviction is, that the immediate object and proper sphere of all our highest
emotions are our struggling fellow-men and this earthly existence. (GEL III 231)
In her youth, she was pleased to adopt the position of the bulldogagitating and worrying ideas
in public, wrestling with ideas as a performance. Likewise, she explains in a petulant missive to
Barbara Bodichon, Pray dont ever ask me again not to rob a man of his religious belief, as if
you thought my mind tended towards such robbery. I have too profound a conviction of the
efficacy that lies in all sincere faith, and the spiritual blight that comes with No-faith, to have any
negative propagandism in me. In fact, I have little sympathy with Free-thinkers as a class, and
have lost all interest in mere antagonism to religious doctrines. I care only to know, if possible,
the lasting meaning that lies in all religious doctrine from the beginning till now (GEL IV 64).
But her intellectual evolution, which nevertheless preserves the intellectual ideas contained in
her translations, leads her to adopt a more moderate position, one that admits that she has more
sympathy for the emotional content of these works than an investment in promulgating the ideas.
The conclusionthat sympathy with our struggling fellow-man and this earthly existence
remains solid, and carried her forward.26 If religion were capable of teaching that sympathetic
impulse without otherwise forcing on us irrational and blind adherence to pageant and process,
then she, too, would consider herself religious. She explains patiently to a friend

26

She never turned her back on the essential ideas of Strauss, Feuerbach, and Spinoza, however. In an 1863 letter
linking, naturally, Renans work to the those of these others, she explains that
Renan is a favorite with me. I feel more kinship with his mind than with that of any other living French
author. But I think I shall not do more than look through his Introduction to his Vie de JesusFor minds
acquainted with the European culture of this last half-century, Renans book can furnish no new result; and
they are likely to set little store by the too facile construction of a life from materials of which the
biographical significance becomes more dubious as they are more closely examined. It seems to me the
soul of Christianity lies not at all in the facts of an individual life, but in the ideas of which that life was the
meeting-point and the new starting-point. We can never have a satisfactory basis for the history of the man
Jesus, but that negation does not affect the Idea of Christ either in its historical influence or its great
symbolic meanings. Still such books as Renans have their value in helping the popular imagination to feel
that the sacred past is of one woof with that human present, which ought to be sacred too. (GEL IV 95)

38

All the great religions of the world historically considered, are rightly the objects of deep
reverence and sympathythey are the record of spiritual struggles which are the types of
our own. This is to me preeminently true of Hebrewism and Christianity, on which my
own youth was nourished. And in this sense I have no antagonism towards any religious
belief, but a strong outflow of sympathy. Every community met to worship the highest
Good (which is understood to be expressed by God) carries me along in its main current,
and if there were not reasons against my following such an inclination, I should go to
church or chapel constantly for the sake of the delightful emotions of fellowship which
come over me in religious assembliesthe very nature of such assemblies being the
recognition of a binding belief or spiritual law which is to lift us into willing obedience
and save us from the slavery of unregulated passion or impulse. (GEL V 447-448).
However, religions fail to merit her own personal adherence. The exaltation of the Good is
alone worthy, and that Good consists of sympathy, and that sympathy is eminently ethical. So
she hews closer to philosophy, which, in ethics, is the best of religion shorn of its convoluted,
mystifying theology.
Regardless of the clear relevance of her translations of philosophy in the realm of
religious critique, it is my assertion that Spinozas Ethics was the single-most-important
philosophical influence on George Eliots fiction.27 The precepts presented in the textwhich
George Eliot believes the whole world knows by rote (GEL I 321)form the foundation of her

27

The word influence here is a problematic word, invested and tinctured by the canonical work of Harold Bloom
in The Anxiety of Influence. A more precise characterization might be to uncover the symptomatic absence of
reference to Spinoza in George Eliots output which is to say, seeking to reveal the absent-presence of Spinozist
philosophy in her fiction. This latter term is borrowed from the work of Etienne Balibar, Pierre Macherey, and Louis
Althusser in their Reading Capital; the term symptomatic is in turn borrowed from mid-twentieth-century
psychoanalytical discourse, and is meant to refer to structuring absences in the presentation of condition: the absence
of an acknowledgement of the power of the father, for instance, as a substantive structuring trope in the presentation
of psychological abnormality. In its less pathological sense, as used by Althusser, it means to point out the
importance of an idea or discourse by demonstrating its presence through its elision.

39

worldview as communicated, albeit with a faulty mirror, in her realist novels. Jenny Uglow
remarks that the work of translating Spinoza was to effect the crystalliz[ation of] her views of
personal responsibility (56). Ermarth, although she favors Feuerbach in her readings of George
Eliots fictions, in any event argues that The Essence of Christianity ranks with Spinozas
Ethics as the most important introduction to her humane and original conception of human
freedom. (25)
It is perhaps too easy to read into George Eliots letters for evidence that her translations
of Spinoza were not, ultimately, very intellectually important to her. In a letter to Sara Sophia
Hennell in 1856, still optimistic that her translations would see print, she remarks when Spinoza
comes out, be so good as not to mention my name in connection with it. I particularly wish not to
be known as the translator of the Ethics, for reasons which it would be too tedious to mention.
(GEL II 233). The reason for this off-handed dismissal, too tedious to mention, can only be
constructed speculatively; it could be that she did not want to distinguish herself from the moreenergetic labor of her partner, Lewes, in promulgating and offering Spinoza to the English
reading public. George Eliot was considerably modest on that front, and may have preferred
anonymous authorship in a generous mode of sharing the credit with Lewes, who helped her with
the translation. Or, just as plausibly, the mock-exhaustion of too tedious could refer to the
potential backlash attendant to the publication of such a translation, and accordingly the victim
of an attempted assassination. If Feuerbach was a challenge to dogmatic English Christianity, it
was at least German, and as German, excusably other. But Spinozas philosophy so much more
aggressively undercuts religion; recall, of course, that he was variably hounded in his lifetime as
an atheist and a pantheist. George Eliot, with the vista of a more-successful career of writing
journalism and fiction ahead of her, might have fretted about being associated with the radical

40

philosopher. Or, as probable, the rigorous and tedious geometrical method Spinoza deploys,
which has ever tripped up readers of his text, might have been seen as a fault of the translator, or,
just so, an arrogance of intellectuality that George Eliot would have shuddered at. The fact
remains that Spinozas work has always appeared forbidding to readers,28 and this is a fact that
George Eliot grapples explicitly with.
She therefore reflects in an early letter to the Brays, well before her translation labor was
fully completed,
If you are anxious to publish the translation in question I could, after a few months, finish
the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus to keep it companybut I confess to you, that I think
you would do better to abstain from printing a translation. What is wanted in English is
not a translation of Spinozas works, but a true estimate of his life and system. After one
has rendered his Latin faithfully into English, one feels that there is another yet more
difficult process of translation for the reader to effect, and that the only mode of making
Spinoza accessible to a larger number is to study his books, then shut them and give an
analysis. For those who read the very words Spinoza wrote, there is the same sort of
interest in his style as in the conversation of a person of great capacity who has led a
solitary life, and who says from his own soul what all the world is saying by rote, but this
interest hardly belongs to translation. (GEL I 321)
Herein lies George Eliots most explicit endorsement of Spinozas ideas, and curiously
this endorsement runs counter to the labor of translation that occupied her for so long. It is here
that we see the very pivot by which George Eliot made the transition from translation to essays

28

Although we must be careful to avoid overstating the difficulty of Spinozas work Ermarth cautions us that his
difficulty is too often overstated (33)it remains that Spinozas philosophy is daunting to approach, and hard to
gloss, although, as George Eliot admits, when grasped, it says little uncongenial to the average thinking human; we
seem to know it all by rote, already. Deleuze explains, too, that we are all Spinozists.

41

and fiction; translation is not, ultimately, the best means by which to communicate philosophy,
she explains. Translation merely presents ideasit does not render them living or vital. The only
way to proceed is to shut the books and give an analysis.29 For Spinozas philosophy, especially
as expressed in his comprehensive Ethics, is what all the world is saying by rote; and here can
be seen her clearest approval of Spinozas work. Life, in this formulation, justifies, vindicates,
and confirms Spinoza, not vice versa. Spinoza therefore becomes the simple vessel by which the
true state of the world around us comes to our understanding; Spinoza (or any philosopher)
would be flattered by such an unmitigated endorsement.
To begin with, it is necessary to consider four cornerstone aspects of his philosophy.30
Primary is Spinozas argument for immanence, which, he argues, is the equivalence of all things
as materially existing, and all things, moreover, as modes or expressions of one unified
substance, which he calls God.31 Because we are all, as humans, coequal in our substance and
materiality, he can develop an ethics that describes our necessary interdependence and

29

Susan Hill concurs when she argues that Evanss activity of translationhelped George Eliot create a
methodological framework within which to articulate the moral worldview of her novels, arguing explicitly that the
work of translation is carried forth into the labor of writing fiction (635-636).
30

Redactions and summaries of Spinozas philosophical system abound elsewherein Michael della Roccas
excellent volume (2008); Stuart Nadlers Spinoza's 'Ethics': An Introduction (2006), or his biographical
contextualizations of Spinozas thought; Jonathan Israels absolutely exhaustive work on the history of philosophy
(especially Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 [2002]), and Deleuzes
Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (tr. 2001). Nevertheless, it is important to relay the core precepts that form the
backbone of his work in order to understand his influence on George Eliot.
31

The concept of immanence has been a contentious idea over the course of philosophical history, and the inability
to understand what it means or implies had significant effects on the reception of Spinozas ideas. Notably, it is what
led to an attempted assassination, his ejection from Judaism, his marginalization as an atheist, and his (mistaken)
celebration as a pantheist. But what few commentators on Spinoza have considered, until the twentieth century, at
any rate, is the argument that his immanence is ultimately materialist; to this end, Plekhanov is one of the more
important and first intercessor for Spinozas materialism, and contemporary commentators on his work notably
and chiefly Louis Althusser, Warren Montag, Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Negri, Etienne Balibar, Pierre Macherey,
Alexandre Matheronall proceed, in some part, from the conclusion that Spinoza is a materialist, although they
may disagree significantly on the rationale why. Virgil Nemoianu explains Spinozas materialism without using the
word: For both Eliot and Spinoza, then, human freedom depends upon rational self-understanding in terms of the
network of causes which one is part, underscoring that the subject is formed by a complex interaction of ideologies
and external pressures, and in turn, beholden to the inescapable logic of cause and effect.

42

impingementa fact that George Eliot especially takes up. We are all, inasmuch as we are living
and human, striving to persist, a drive he labels our conatus; Each thing, as far as it can by its
own power, strives to persevere in its being, Spinoza explains (Ethics III.P6). This striving is
nothing but the actual essence of the things (Ethics III.P7). Our conatus is that which essentially
defines us; we want nothing more than to continue living. Moreover, because the mind is
material, as are ideas, in Spinozas framework, and as such, part of the fabric of our immanent
materiality, our mind, as far as it can, strives to imagine those things that increase or aid the
bodys power of acting (Ethics III.P12). In Spinozas vision of immanence, because we are all
interconnected, and because we all have the same essential goal, we are forever acting in the best
interest of our own persistence. This is not to say that we dont make mistakes, or on occasion
act against our survival. But we do not do so, as it were, intentionally, but because we have
mistaken or inadequate ideas about what will best suit us.
These actions are crucial for Spinoza, the materialist; and he explains that by affect I
understand affectations of the body by which the bodys power of acting is increased or
diminished, aided or restrained (Ethics III.D3). Affect is the word for the ways in which our
actions registerthat is, in the effect that they have, first and foremost on us, and also,
inevitably, on others. Because we seek to persist, we act in our own self-interest and do what will
aid us, even if we are mistaken about our actions actual consequences. So we are all, to use
Deleuzes predominating image, objects on a plane; we are all attempting to move forward, and
in doing so, taking actions that will propel us forward (indefinitely, Spinoza claims, ratifying
the physics of the image [Ethics III.P8]). But there are other bodies crowding this plane, and our
actions are not taken in a vacuum, and the actions that others take have an impact on our ability
to act further, inhibiting them or encouraging them, and doing so in an astonishing ambivalence;

43

we can be inhibited from acting badly, or encouraged to act badly; we can be inhibited from
acting well, and encouraged to act well. Our conatus remains the same: we ever pursue that
which we believe is best for us, that which will best permit us to continue acting.
This is the foundation of Spinozas Ethics: that we are bodies that impinge on other
bodies, and, insofar as we are always striving (consciously and unconsciously) to persist, we act;
when we act, our actions have ramifications and consequences that impinge on others ability to
act and persist. Hence, Spinoza argues, we must understand the effects and consequences of our
actions. When we act on bad information or inadequate ideas of the world as-it-really-is, then we
disempower ourselves, or disempower othersand we do do these things: we are imperfect,
erring creatures, a fact that George Eliot recognizes over and over again. 32 Hence, in order to act
in ways that serve our interest, we must strive to understand the world as it really is. There are
three orders of knowledge, Spinoza claims, and we are always acting according to one of these
levels. The first is inadequate knowledge, or knowledge gleaned from our senses, abstracted
experience, hearsay, rumors, signs, or impressions. This knowledge is, in a way, mutilated,
confused, or without order for the intellect (Ethics II.P40.S2). The second order of knowledge is
adequate, proceeding from common notions and adequate ideas of the properties of things, or
reason (Ethics II.P40.S2). This knowledge also consists of deductions of cause from effect or
32

Dorothy Atkins permits that this is one of the greatest appeals of Spinozas philosophy: If one finds satisfaction
in Spinozas ethical system, it may be due to his recognition of evil [sic] and error as the result of incomplete
knowledge. There is no sense of the basic depravity of man in his philosophy, or the possibility of an alternate
opposing force to goodness. There is no sense of a cruel and terrible fate beyond death for erring and imperfect
humans. In Spinozas ethical system, humans do indeed bear moral responsibility for their actions and inadequacy,
but attainable knowledge is the means whereby ultimate goodness may be achieved. (62)
Of course, George Eliot, in the famous Chapter 17 of Adam Bede underscores, too, the implicit
commitments of realism to depict the more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people (194) among whom we live,
and not the few prophets[the] few sublimely beautiful women; [the] few heroes (197). Beauty and perfection
are unrealistic and, implicitly, unethical in their wheedling monopoly on our sympathy. Thank god, the narrator
exalts, human feelingdoes not wait for beauty (196). Human feeling must, and does, flow toward any worthy
object, and so the narrator exhorts: But let us love that other beauty too, which liesin the secret of deep human
sympathy (196). We err and are imperfect; we are plain; we have crooked noses and bad breath, and we must be as
worthy of sympathy as those beautiful and perfect creatures. Beauty, or, dare I say blessedness, lies in our ability
to admit that most othersand ourselveslie in the camp of the normal and average, the erring and stupid.

44

conclusion from premise, the operations of rational thought (Wolfson, ctd. In Atkins 59). The
third kind of knowledge is that to which we should aspire, inasmuch as it is blessedness, and
consists of intuitive knowledge, and derives from an adequate idea of the formal essence of
certain attributes of God to the adequate knowledge of the essence of things (Ethics II.P40.S2).
This last knowledge, in so many words, is a knowledge of the world as it really, essentially, is.
The first sort of knowledge is the sole cause of falsity, and as the cause of falsity, is the
motivator of our worst actions (Ethics II.P41); the second and third levels of knowledge are what
permit us to act in our interest (Ethics II.P42). The third kind is something we will know when
we achieve it: He who has a true idea at the same time knows that he has a true idea, and cannot
doubt the truth of things (Ethics II.P43). Atkins asserts in keeping with standard readings of
Spinoza that knowledge of the third type is not attached to the intellect; it is intuited, directly
felt (60).
We must seek to increase and refine our knowledge; we must work to clarify and remedy
our mistaken ideas; and in doing so, progress, at least, to rational thoughtand from rational
thought, engender actions that empower us; and from these actions, learn to recognize that which
is not just good for us, but good for othersand good for others in a way that is also good for us.
This requires, although Spinoza gives short shrift to it, a certain kind of labor, if only of the trialand-error variety. Adam Bede recognizes this labor, and also recognizes that the third sort of
knowledge to which we should aspire is the purest form of knowledge: The more knowledge a
man has, the better hell dos work; and feelings a sort o knowledge. (Adam Bede 556) This
sort of knowledge, when sought and achieved, is a sort of freedom a freedom from the bondage
of self and ignorance.

45

It is freedom that Dorothy Atkins and Virgil Nemoianu home in on in their critical
reflections on Spinoza and George Eliot. Dorothy Atkins spends much of her study carefully
explaining how the characters in Adam Bede progress toward a more perfect knowledge of
themselves in the world, and that this knowledge, fought for and gained, enables them to be more
ethical creatures by the end of the text. [Spinozas] concepts of human bondage and human
freedom appear in Adams bondage to passion and its resultant moral blindness, Atkins
argues (91). He is joined in this blindness, she argues, with Hetty and Arthur, who are also
enslaved to their passionate misunderstanding of the world around them; it is only Dinah, she
argues, who possesses clear sight and an eternal perspective on life that accords with Spinozas
view of human freedom (91). Virgil Nemoianu, regarding Daniel Deronda, is similarly invested
in demonstrating the presence of a Spinozist conception of freedom in George Eliots fiction.
Like Spinoza, Eliot takes freedom to depend upon embeddedness in a system of natural causes
and to follow from understanding oneself and one's relation to others in terms of this
embeddedness. Perhaps with even more force than Spinoza, Eliot utterly rejects the conception
of freedom as assertion of a will which is a self-contained causa sui.For Eliot, those characters
are most free who are determined by self-understanding and whose lives, therefore, express the
concrete activity of benefiting themselves and others. (69) Freedom can only develop out of a
materialist belief in the immanence of social life grounded as it is in a notion of affect. And
freedom is synonymous with the potential for action with the freedom to affect, which, as
discussed above, is in keeping with our conatus. Nemoianu explains, On Spinoza's view, moral
obligation, rightly understood, is not the restraint of freedom. Rather, it is only when we are free
that we are able to act out of moral obligation. (69) Ermarth likewise glosses Spinoza on
freedom,

46

Because human unhappiness is a function of human deficiency, and human bondage to


the finite, human happiness increases with the increased freedom from that bondage
through knowledge. The more persons understand of their limits, the more they transcend
them, and thus gain their freedom. This idea will be familiar to readers of George Eliots
fiction, and it is very far from more familiar ideas that intellect (Reason) takes priority
over emotion (Passion), or that consciousness gains control of impulse by depreciating
the value or importance of impulse, emotion, or passion. (37)
Freedom comes with the governance of our passions and our egoism; freedom consists in
rationally understanding the limitations of ignorance and seeking to exceed it. If or when we
surrender to the irrational obfuscation of our passions, we surrender our ability to be active and
efficacious; George Eliots belief in reason accords with Spinozas explanation of human
freedom, as these critics have noted.
There is a real continuity, then, to the lifes-work of George Eliot. The trajectory is not
teleologicalgiven the oddity of her last published text, and her profession of containing many
more novels, but not the energy required to write themwe cannot say, then, that her final work
contains within it the blossoms of everything in seed from her career. But an organic
development, and the emergence of evolving, core tenets render her development clear. She
began by working at translations that sought to pry open the closed minds of the English
readerand then proceeded into criticism that cautioned us to look for more from our fiction,
and reject passivity and entertainment as the primary modus operandi of our reading. Throwing
down the gauntlet to herself, she picks it up; doing so, she proceeds then to put her principles in
action, turning to fiction as the organ through which she expresses her philosophical
commitments. Here, especially, it becomes clear that George Eliots novels are symptomatic

47

regarding reference to Spinozas philosophy: although they do not explicitly invoke Spinoza as
the informing philosophy, a search for this very Spinozist lacuna reveals, paradoxically, the
importance of his work on her fiction.
Fiction, what George Eliot is justly most famous for, represented the pinnacle
achievement of her varied career; but fiction, for George Eliot, was not inherently different from
the other intellectual achievements she had under her belt. Indeed, in an early criticism published
in the Westminster Review, she takes to task Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, the gist of which
is that they concern themselves with entertainments reflective of their (self-)limited
circumstances; and such novels, even if they delight, could never hope to improve, the reader.
This cadre of women-dabblers sought to debase the form of the novel into a mode of leisurely
entertainment, and rely on unrealistic depictions and passionate, high-flown language altogether
unsuitable for the novel. By point of contrast, George Eliot sketches for the reader of her essay
the really cultured woman who would emerge as a tonic to the above, that
is all the simpler and the less obtrusive for her knowledge; it has made her see herself
and her opinions in something like just proportions; she does not make it a pedestal from
which she flatters herself that she commands a complete view of men and things, but
makes it a point of observation from which to form a right estimate of herself. She neither
spouts poetry nor quotes Cicero on slight provocation; not because she thinks that a
sacrifice must be made to the prejudices of men, but because that mode of exhibiting her
memory and Latinity does not present itself to her as edifying or graceful. She does not
write books to confound philosophers, perhaps because she is able to write books that
delight them. In conversation she is the least formidable of women, because she
understands you, without wanting to make you aware that you cant understand her. She

48

does not give you information, which is the raw material of culture,--she gives you
sympathy, which is its subtlest essence. (Pinney 317; emphasis added)
And although we must grant that there is a pleasure in being confounded, she nevertheless sought
to infuse fiction with a higher purposeto instill it with philosophy consciously, and to elevate,
through that inclusion, the sympathies of the reader. Information is subsidiary to sympathy,
and the tedious artifice of the lady novelists, wherein plot is related to the supposed delight of
their readers, is supplanted by sensitivity, depth, and description. Realism is the mode that she is
endorsing here, although in indirect termsbut not the realism that a Geraldine Jewsbury (the
object of the above attack) would herself espouse. This realism is best constructed around core
principles that educate the reader, as opposed to merely entertaining them.
In this mission statement for the really cultured woman, George Eliot is drafting a
proposal for what the lifewriting and livedof an intellectual woman should be like. This
statement is remarkable for a number of reasons that bear on the novelistic work of George Eliot
herself. For one thing, she elaborates the trick of the omniscient narrator that she deploys to
notable effect in her later novels, and which is distinctive from other Victorians use of the same
device. The omniscient narrator doesnt seek to represent a complete view of man and things,
no matter how encyclopedic the realist novel may be, but rather uses it as a point of observation
from which to form a right estimate of herself. This recalls Spinoza: knowledge and encounters
should be about the elevation and clarification of self-knowledge; here, the realist novel is
invested with that purpose. Likewise, the realist novel has no business attempting to contain
everything; rather than giv[ing] you information, it should give[] you sympathy, the lever by
which she believes that the raw material of the world can be transformed into something
meaningful and valuable for self-knowledge; and knowledge, it bears repeating, is the means by

49

which Spinoza argues we progress toward blessedness. Moreover, George Eliot cheekily says
that the really cultured woman does not aim to confound philosophers, but to delight them,
a purpose that is more profound than it may seem. The novel shouldnt be a challenge to
philosophers, should not seek to confound them with unrealistic paradoxes or exaggerated
passions, but rather to speak to them in their own languagethe implications of delight here
invoke pleasure and equality, a communion with philosophers.
As Leslie Stephen (somewhat chauvinistically) remarks in his early study of George
Eliots life and work, She wasthe first female novelist whose inspiration came in a great
degree from a philosophical creed (51). Leaving aside the question of the word choicecreed
reads connotatively akin to doctrine or dogma, and unfortunately diminishes the complex
interplay of philosophical interestsStephen astutely appraises George Eliots entre to novel
writing. Setting aside his gendered claim, he moreover says, George Eliot alone [of the
Victorian novelists then writing] came to fiction from philosophy (68). He cites the familiar
feedback given to George Eliot by Lewes, always careful to encourage and assuage the
melancholy novelist: You have wit, description, and philosophythose go a good way towards
the production of a novel (53). Lewess tripartite division of the skills necessary for the
composition of fiction are crucial to understanding George Eliots project. To begin with the
second term, description, George Eliots commitment to the mediated-mimetic fidelity of the text
to the real world is a deep commitment in her elaboration of sympathy. Likewise, we can gloss
wit as the generosity with which she attends to and elucidates the psychological depth of her
characters, to say nothing of the actual wit of her novels, as famously exhibited in the Rainbow
scene in Silas Marner, or the home truths of Mrs. Poyser in Adam Bede. And then the third
elementphilosophyis what provides the intellectual rigor and depth of the underlying

50

arguments and ideas in her novels. These three elements are also more schematic than they may
appear: wit speaks to the interposition of the writer into the text, and reflects the ways in which
the author herself may be present in the novel in the structures of characterization and narratorial
interjection; description urges readers to tune into not just the detail present in the work, but the
larger aesthetic aims of her realism; and finally, philosophy urges us to read through the text to
the presence of belief and the novels undergirding ideas. To be faithful to the labor of reading
George Eliot, and to be true to her conception of sympathy, it is imperative in her readers that we
mark these three elements.
In spite of critics intuitive knowledge of the presence of philosophy in George Eliots
novels, there is a conspicuous lack of critical consensus in how, exactly, to achieve the aim of
reading philosophy and George Eliots novels together. For instance, U. C. Knoepflmacher
argued in 1964, in response to George Levine, that only by treating George Eliot as a
philosophic novelist can we do full justice to both her art and her thought (309). Levines
article dismisses the philosophical labor of George Eliot, suggesting that in spite of being
widely read in philosophy, at best she was an amateur philosopher using her wide reading for
purposes essentially unphilosophical (1962, 268).33 Levine ultimately cedes the fact that George
Eliot is concerned with philosophical issues, but appears somewhat disappointed to conclude that
whatever her philosophical conclusions might have been, George Eliots handling of the
problem was artistic rather than philosophical (279). Levine is enunciating the core problematic
without appearing to understand the larger implications of it: what he cites as a failure to be
33

George Levine grounds this accusation in the fact that she never felt impelled to set down her own thoroughly
worked out system or to state finally her views on the problem of determinism (268). Such a sweeping
conclusionfounded on the failure to elaborate what Levine himself is looking for, is something of an aberration
in the critical career of a scholar whose later, more mature, work shows greater sensitivity and insight than this early
essay. Likewise, his condemnation of her seeming-recourse to a fuzzy, religio-metaphysical libertarian position
reveals his inability (at the time) to more rigorously consider the implications of George Eliots philosophical
commitments (274).

51

thoroughly philosophical is in fact a crucial misreading of the committed philosophical labor of


her novels. Knoepflmachers conception of George Eliot is as a philosophic novelist, thus
insisting that the two discoursesphilosophy and the novelbe considered jointly in any
reading of her work. But the phrase philosophic novelist nevertheless foregrounds her as a
novelist first, and philosopher second, repeating the same problematic that Levine petulantly and
less articulately registers. Connotatively, the phrase also suggests that her novels are reductively
modes of reflection upon philosophy. His essay therefore hunts through Adam Bede for moments
in which a particular tropethe performance of skepticism around the ritualappear, taking
each instance as symptomatic of an unquestioned endorsement and performance of Feuerbachian
philosophy.34
In recent years, however, more criticism has been generated in an attempt to read George
Eliots novels for the traces of philosophy contained therein. For instance, Catherine Villanueva,
in her study Women Philosophers: Genre and the Boundaries of Philosophy, makes a variation
of these claims for the work of George Eliot. In arguing that feminine philosophy has existed, but
in forms less recognizable to the discourse of philosophy, Villanueva takes cues from French
feminism in arguing that George Eliots novels are effectively a form of ecriture feminine, and
that the novel, in her hands, is ultimately a philosophical document. Like Moira Gatens, she is
reacting against the critical tendency to draw[] out an explicit philosophical theory from Eliots
fiction and takes umbrage at readings that argue that she is merely parroting or replicating
Comte or Spinozas philosophy (14). At least a part of these qualms are grounded in the fact that
she aims to prove that George Eliots philosophy is ultimately hersand that it doesnt require a
34

Knoepflmacher, in his later, more wide-ranging book George Eliots Early Novels: The Limits of Realism,
approaches her early novels with less focus, though many of his readings do still stem from his claim that George
Eliot is a philosophical novelist. He claims, for instance, in a manner that cements his epithet, that her early
pronouncementsstem directly from her philosophic outlook (1968, 26) in a claim that still argues for the one-toone correlation of philosophical belief and fictional occurrence.

52

reading of the patriarchal, masculine Western philosophical heritage. 35 If this is the case, she
wonders, why should we have any particular interest in studying and interpreting her work?
(125) Thus, Villanueva urges readers to consider the form of the novel. If we find the
philosophy, then we lose the novel (130). In doing so, we are not to subtract philosophical
content from the novel and break it down into premises and conclusions, but rather to assume
that the philosophical content necessitates the form (146). In other words, the novel for George
Eliot is philosophythere is a strict identity between the genre and the mode. While the
implication of this is clear, that the novel is to be read as a text of moral philosophy, this
formulation unfairly flattens out the labor we might do if we approached the novels as literary
forms, and fails, in attributing to George Eliot an absolute uniqueness, to acknowledge the
formative influences of others on her work.
But this brings us back to one of George Eliots earliest and most astute critics. Henry
James, in an appreciative essay published on the event of the publication of Crosss biography of
George Eliot, was among the first to explicitly state the connective thread between the novel and
philosophy in George Eliots oeuvre, and probably still the most eloquent and accurate in his
estimation of George Eliots project. Pointing to a letter cited in Crosss biography, wherein
George Eliot claims that her purpose is not that of the doctrinal teacher, but the aesthetic
one, and that she seeks to rouse the nobler emotions, James acutely points out that this artistic

35

Villanueva also blandly criticizes extant criticism that aims to do just that, she attributes these readings to critical
laziness and confusion. These critics are apparently bewildered by the apparent difficulty the form of Eliots work
poses for a philosophical investigation and they take the easier road: It is far easier to place Eliots work within
the framework of an extant systematized philosophy, and then use aspects of her novels as evidence for this
philosophy, and as arguments supporting it (125). To be sure, the latter replicates my critique of Knoepflmachers
work as indicative of the hunt-and-peck school of philosophical criticism, but the trajectory of her claimthat her
novels are reduced to totalizing systems is replicated in her own arguments that the entirety of George Eliots
engagement with the genre of the novel is a philosophical move. Villanuevas arguments suffer continuously
throughout from a sort of willful reduction and a polemical attitude that blinds her to the logical inconsistencies
contained in her own approach.

53

self- conception speaks to her profound influence on a generation of writers (1885, 673).36 He
moreover argues that We feel in her, always, that she proceeds from the abstract to the concrete;
that her figures and her situations are evolved, as the phrase is, from her moral consciousness,
and are only indirectly the products of observationsThe philosophic door is always open, on
her stage, and we are aware that the somewhat cooling draught of ethical purpose draws across
it (ibid.). In this formulation of George Eliots aesthetic endeavors, the primacy is placed on the
philosophical principle, and the secondary emphasis on the capability of George Eliots realism;
but far from being a liability, James argues, this is half the beauty of her work. That the novel
proceeds from philosophy is taken for granted by James. In fact, the philosophical depth of her
work does not diminish her aesthetic achievement, but only deepens ither preoccupation with
the universe helped to make her characters strike you as also belonging to it, an achievement in
mimesis that is philosophically motivated and aesthetically successful in that it raised the roof,
widened the area, of her aesthetic structure. In spite of referring to George Eliot as a writer of
36

This influence can be seen quite clearly in a curious way on James himself. Though Jamess relationship to
George Eliot is not a simple onehe found himself alternately charmed and vexed by George Eliot and her
writing1885 signals an odd coming-together for James. Just four months after he published this study of George
Eliot, the Atlantic Monthly began the publication of his novel The Princess Casamassima. Though he composed the
New York Edition Prefaces to his novels many years laterfrom 1907 to 1909his preface to that novel is
remarkable in its elaboration of the role of affect and ethics in the composition of the novel, and the novels
relationship to the reader.
This in fact I have ever found rather terribly the point that the figures in any picture, the agents in any
drama, are interesting only in proportion as they feel their respective situations; since the consciousness, on
their part, of the complication exhibited forms for us their link of connexion with it. But there are degrees
of feeling the muffled, the faint, the just sufficient, the barely intelligent, as we may say; and the acute,
the intense, the complete, in a word the power to be finely aware and richly responsible. It is those moved
in this latter fashion who get most out of all that happens to them and who in so doing enable us, as
readers of their record, as participators by a fond attention, also to get most. Their being finely aware as
Hamlet and Lear, say, are finely aware makes absolutely the intensity of their adventure, gives the
maximum of sense to what befalls them. We care, our curiosity and our sympathy care, comparatively little
for what happens to the stupid, the coarse and the blind; care for it, and for the effects of it, at the most as
helping to precipitate what happens to the more deeply wondering, to the really sentient. Hamlet and Lear
are surrounded, amid their complications, by the stupid and the blind, who minister in all sorts of ways to
their recorded fate.
In this manifesto of sorts, James sketches out the ways in which an economy of interest is developed and
maintained in the course of fiction writing, and describes the mechanisms by which the reader evinces her sympathy
for the characters that are imagined on the page. Likewise, it is only through the elaboration of affect within the text
that the reader can be stirred to some measure of responsibility for the feelings of the other, and her own feelings.

54

types,37 which may seem to dismiss her characters as undeveloped or superficial, he argues
that nothing is finer, in her genius than her ability to marry her love of general truth and love
of the special case. It is the latter reference to the special case that speaks to George Eliots
own conception of her transition to novel writing, and a more organic way of understanding the
philosophical purpose of literature.38
Moira Gatens underscores this particularly complex mode of novel writing in her essay
on The Art and Philosophy of George Eliot. Gatens cites a familiar passage from George
Eliots letters, wherein she claims that her novels are but simply a set of experiments in lifean
endeavor to see what our thought and emotion may be capable ofwhat stores of motive, actual
or hinted as possible, give promise of a better after which we may strivewhat gains from past
revelations and discipline we must strive to keep hold of as something more than shifting theory"
(GEL VI 216). Gatens wants to argue against some of prevailing modes of reading outlined
above. For instance, she argues that George Eliot rejects the notion that the novels are valuable
raw materials that the discerning philosophical eye can convert into capital or that her novels
are instances of philosophical writing in the sense that they provide literary clothing for
philosophical ideas (74). Virgil Nemoianu likewise shies away from these sorts of claims,
avoiding the argument that Eliots work is intended to be a vehicle for Spinozas philosophy,
moreover clarifying the problematic by explaining that this would entail a relationship between
her novels and philosophy as ideological (65). Gatenss grappling with the critical modes is at
least, in part, an effort to redescribe the ways in which philosophy has been read into and through
37

Anyone familiar with the language of types will, on the one hand, recognize the persistent presence of Comte
and his positivist philosophy in the word, insofar as archetypal actors work through history in the construction of
recognizable, grand narratives of development and progress. Those familiar with Jamess work will likewise
recognize the frequency with which James invokes the concept in his novels, and the struggle he has against the
reduction of complex psychologies to type.
38
Terry Eagleton rehashes this claim in his most recent work, The Event of Literature, when he asserts that There is
a lineage from Shelley and George Eliot to Henry James and Iris Murdoch for which morality itself is a question of
imagination, and thus an inherently aesthetic faculty (60).

55

literature. The first qualm she has is largely scholasticit is an injunction against the type of
intellectual labor that hunts-and-pecks for evidence of philosophical insight contained in the
novels. And the latter disavowal is against the tendency to reduce novels to ciphers for
philosophical or ideological positions, itself another concern about tendencies within the
profession, perhaps most markedly a subtle critique of the deep investment of recent generations
of literary scholars who seek to prove the ideological currency of novelists by uncovering their
latent politics. Gatens, for her part, settles on what she thinks is a middle ground: that her novels
are a new form of philosophical writing (74). I would like to refine Gatenss claim, however,
and steer it away from the dangerous ground that she signals in an appreciative echo of
Villanuevas argument: ultimately what Gatens is doing is not arguing for a reevaluation of the
genre of the novel in light of philosophy, but that rather, there is a more subtle interplay between
the two discourses. In other words, Gatens misunderstands herself when she argues that the novel
is a form of philosophical writing, and in that claim she speciously elides the distinction between
the novel and the philosophical text. Nemoianu also argues this point: Reading the two [Eliot
and Spinoza] together makes available a view of human freedom which is at once an attractive
interpretation of Spinoza and a significant component of Eliots ethics, and that Eliot and
Spinoza are mutually illuminating (65). Gatens, in fact, clarifies herself later in the essay in a
claim that is more subtly coherent: Eliot's novels do not offer a theory of morality but rather
present an imaginary world, as complex as the medium allows, through which her philosophy is
expressed (80; italics in original).
Although Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth is more convinced of the relevance of Feuerbach to
reading of George Eliots fiction, she nevertheless stresses the importance of Spinozas thought
to George Eliots fiction. In one meditation on the idea, Ermarth explains:

56

With Spinoza, as with Feuerbach, George Eliots views agree in some respects and not in
others; so again, in considering the relations of the Ethics to her fiction the question of
influence is best answered by looking for emphases and directional signals, rather than
for equations between their views. And questions of influence seem somewhat peripheral,
considering that Marian Evans had developed to maturity before she translated the Ethics.
In translating it she was making available in English a work she considered major. She
had translated Strauss and Feuerbach, and had written some of her most important essays
(including for example more than half of the essays included in Thomas Pinneys
standard collection); having got this far intellectually and productively, she turned to
Spinoza as an autonomous intelligence acknowledging an ally. (33)
Like Nemoianu, Ermarth warns against looking for direct representations of Spinozas
philosophy in the fiction, but rather encourages looking for emphases and directional signals.
Thus, Seeing the similarities between George Eliots views and Spinozas requires, to be quite
in their spirit, seeing their differences as well (37). It is important to remark upon both the
endorsements and the departures from his philosophy, and doing so requires us to accept that the
novels are not merely philosophical tracts masquerading as entertainments, but that they are
intellectual works in their own right grappling ambivalently with influence and with belief.
In other words, the novels are not a form of philosophy, or reducible to an application of
philosophy, but are rather expressive of philosophy. The language of expressivity is crucially
SpinozistDeleuze in his book Expressionism in Philosophy argues that expression is the
primary mode in which philosophy is elucidated. This recalls Jamess image of the room and the
doorthat the novel, for George Eliot, is the space into which the cooling draught of philosophy
enters.

57

In Deleuzes estimation, reading for expression is an acknowledgement of the immanence


of the world as elaborated by Spinoza. In other wordsin that all things are modes of the same
immanent materiality, our labor in interacting with the world is understanding the ways in which
that monist material (God, or Nature) expresses itself in thoughts, ideas, imagination, the ideas of
ideas, etc. As James notes of George Eliot, she proceeds from the abstract to the concrete in
her novelsbut in a Deleuzean-Spinozist understanding of George Eliots project, that merely
means she proceeds from the expression of the mode to the expression of the expression (14-15).
What this understanding means, though, is that there is a necessary correlation between the idea
(that which one might seek in the depths of a novel, and that which readers read for as
beneath the surface of the text) and the mode in which that idea is expressed (the surface of
the text, the content of the text, the characters, the story, the action). All of this invokes
SpinozaIn Spinoza, Nature at once comprises and contains everything, while being explicated
and implicated in each thing (Expressionism 17). Thus, the whole of a novel seeks to replicate,
ideally, the whole of Nature, and as it is contained in Nature, the novel likewise contains and
implicates Nature. The novel is a closed form, it is bound, but it reflects the finitude of our
capability to express; we cannot achieve the unbounded immanent infinitude that Nature is. The
choice of the genre of realism, and the adherence to a programme of mimesis, is a crucial gesture
for George Eliot and for the novel as it expresses philosophy.
Realism, in George Eliots deployment of it, is an attempt to describe a portion of the
social world that gestures to the extension of its parameters outside of the boundaries of the text
while nevertheless insisting on its own closure as a form. Likewise, realism, because it insists on
the (although mediated) likeness of its expression to the materiality of the world, even as that
project is itself prone to the necessary dislocations that language imposes, is expressive of the

58

idea of the world in the terms in which we are most familiar with the world. This closeness, even
though it is only an asymptotic, mediated approach to reality, is nevertheless what makes the
expression of George Eliots philosoph(y/ies) so communicative to the average reader. Avoiding
the too-easy reduction of allegory or the abstractions of philosophy itself, the realist novel
simulates the material world as we know in the ideal form of language; the imagination labors
inside of a mode that it is most familiar withthe sensory perception and translation of the
world into language. So though the world of the realist novel does not, as it were, exist
materially (it is grounded in a zero [Hillis Miller 77]), it nevertheless exists materially insofar
as it is the extension of the plane of immanence through the mechanism of the imagination. All
of this is so very Spinozist, but in spite of what might appear to be mystification, the
fundamental argument here is that George Eliot has chosen to express philosophy in a form that
is most available to readers. Readers had long been accustomed to reading novels for two
thingsthe moral lesson implicit in them (one only has to hearken to Watts lineage of realism
in The Rise of the Novel, and consider the novels-as-moral-lessons of Richardson and others) and
the compelling depictions of characters. Considering that the novel quickly moved away from
the two-dimensionality of a moral tract like The Pilgrims Progress (which George Eliot
nevertheless took quite seriously as a novel) to Fieldings injunction to depict human nature in
his great novel Tom Jones, the development of realism in the nineteenth centuryproblematic
and mediated as it isis the culmination of these two competing impulses of the novel.
Pointing the way from George Eliots earlier career translating and critiquing, Ermath
asserts that George Eliots shift from ethics to aesthetics is one of the most eloquent facts of her
career. In her essays, as in her translations, she concerns herself with problems of ethics and
freedom. In seeking a way to deal with narrowing, ungenerous orthodoxies, she turns from the

59

maxims of dogmatists to the inclusive assertions of art. The highest ethical values in her work
are aesthetic ones; and this is a view with the most immediate, practical social and even political
relevance (39-40). The novels, following her earlier career, represent the apogee of her
intellectual investments, and the novels are expressive of those hard-fought and well-argued
positions developed in her youth; the novels, as documents of a mature thinker, signal a
paradigm shift to an endorsement of the potential intellectual rigor of the realist novel.
Thus, by the time that George Eliot adopts realism as a form, it seems suited to the
evolution she intends for it; the sway of the moral and the dogmatic has elapsed, and
developments in science and philosophy have once more suited the form of realism to the task of
pedagogy, this time in the form of a secular humanist ethics. According to J. Hillis Miller,
An understanding of ethics as a region of philosophical or conceptual investigation
depends, perhaps surprisingly, on mastery of the ability to interpret written stories, that is,
on a kind of mastery usually thought to be the province of the literary critic. If this is true
it has important implications for my topic of the ethics of reading, as well as for my claim
that the rhetorical study of literature has crucial practical implications for our moral,
social, and political lives. I have said there is a special appropriateness of narrative
examples for an investigation of the ethics of reading, but the reasons for this must not be
misunderstood. It is not because stories contain the thematic dramatization of ethical
situations, choices, and judgments that they are especially appropriate for my topic, but
for a reverse reason, that is, because ethics itself has a peculiar relation to that form of
language we call narrative. The thematic dramatizations of ethical topics in narratives are
the oblique allegorization of this linguistic necessity. (3)

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There is something, Miller argues, inherently ethical in the use of language, period, but
especially when it takes the form of narrative. Echoing many narratological theorists who insist
on the essential and natural impulse to tell stories (of ourselves, of others, to ourselves, to
others), Miller makes a claim for the philosophical importance of stories. He argues
specifically that George Eliot sees the value in using narrative in order to perform ethics overand-above the content of her stories, which, as critics have more or less unanimously agreed,
dramatically enact ethical problems, and through the mediation of the author, the narrator, the
characters, and the readers response to them, work through those problems to their resolution.39
Martha Nussbaum, in her philosophical consideration of emotion in literature, Loves
Knowledge, likewise argues for the necessity of stories in the construction of ethical philosophy.
While primarily focusing on the novels of Henry James in her text, Nussbaum clears a space for
the consideration of the ways in which the syntax, figurative language, and subject matter of
Jamess novels aims to instruct and form a coherent system of ethical thought. To take a single
example from her text, she argues that The Princess Casamassima works out Jamess depiction
of personal political engagement grounded in affective exchange. Instead of a blindly inhumane
collectivist politics espoused by the Prince, the education of Hyacinth Robinson demonstrates
that a knowledge of the othereven ones political or social opponentforecloses the sort of
violence otherwise urged by revolutionary practice. According to Nussbaum, The claim [of the

39

Miller argues that this ethical base to the novel is ultimately undecidablethat there is no rigorous means by
which we can judge the efficacy of a particular fiction.
Even if it can be decided that performatives do make something happen, it can never be decided exactly
what that something is and whether that something is good or bad. All performatives are unpredictable and
unmeasurable. A performative can never be controlled, defined, or have a decisive line put around its
effects. The link between knowledge and power goes by way of language, and that link is both a barrier and
a break, a gulf. Language used performatively makes something happen all right, but the link between
knowing and doing can never be predicted exactly or understood perspicuously after the fact. (76)
This is a particularly deconstructive take on the performative nature, but it does underscore the ambiguity of the
efficacy of speech acts, as otherwise interrogated by contemporary critics in the wake of the Searle/Derrida debate
(carried on through Limited, Inc.) and the innovation conducted through the work of Judith Butler.

61

novel sui generis] seems to be that if you really vividly experience a concrete human life,
imagine what its like to live that life, and at the same time permit yourself the full range of
emotional responses to that concrete life, you willbe unable to do certain things to that person
(209). In other words, narrative is a trying ground for our ethical choices; if we can come to
understand the fictional other as a real other, or at least as we understand a real other, then we
will become more ethical creatures in our material lives. It is the very specificity of novels and
their ability to depict specific and distinct characters and psychologies that allows us to read
them as ethical case studies; they move beyond the abstractions of philosophy to application.
Citing George Eliots essay on German life, Peter Logan remarks that, as art is the
nearest thing to life, realist art exists at the borderline between a representation of life and life
as such, and this liminal qualityunique to realist art, among all forms of created objects and
discoursesis what differentiates it from information: it creates the illusion of being alive (43).
Terry Eagleton agrees in privileging realist fiction: Many realist works convey the thickness of
a specific form of life, a virtue they share with certain currents of sociology and anthropology.
They act as a kind of phenomenology, reinvesting language with a wealth of experience which
mainstream philosophy tends to abstract from it (159). For Eagleton, realist fictions trump the
abstractions of philosophy in conveying the thickness of life and he joins Nussbaum in
affirming the necessity of examples for the ethical education of the reading subject. George
Eliots realism just might beas Gallagher arguesso philosophically infused that she comes to
embody forth in her fictions the desire to be real (66).
And so it is in George Eliots fictions, as Nussbaum argues, that we have such a full
account of anothers character that we can learn to construe ethical behavior. Though I resist the
problematically simple formulation proffered by Nussbaum, that we should strive to live as

62

good characters is a good story do, caring about what happens, resourcefully confronting each
new thing (3-4), such a formula however insists on the relevance of the act of reading to the
reading subject. Lisabeth During pragmatically asks, If I can become absorbed in the telling of
the lives of others, or in the seeing, as in a series of dramatic tableaux, of the predicaments of my
fellows, why shouldnt I be just as capable of an absorption that is not purely aesthetic? (89).
It is this power of the novel to communicate to the reader the force of ethical
responsibility that George Eliot so values in her work. Fiction is the apogee of that intention:
My books are a form of utterance that dissatisfies me less [than conversations], because
they are deliberately, carefully constructed on a basis which even my doubting mind is
never shaken by a doubt, and they are not determined, as conversation inevitably is, by
considerations of momentary expediency. The basis I mean is my conviction as to the
relative goodness and nobleness of human disposition and motives. And the inspiring
principle which alone gives me courage to write is, that of so presenting our human life
as to help my readers in getting a clearer conception and a more active admiration of
those vital elements which bind men together and give a higher worthiness to their
existence; and also to help them in gradually dissociating these elements from the more
transient forms on which an outworn teaching tends to make them dependent. (GEL IV
472)
The scope of her realismwhich in its breadth intentionally encompasses the ordinary and the
faultyis overall an attempt to depict for the reader the promise of the innate nobility and
goodness of human beings, and to render for the reader a clear understanding of the innate
potential for man to behave ethically. This is the basis, her conviction behind writing fiction;
like Nussbaum later argues the novel is capable of, George Eliot wholeheartedly believes that the

63

novel is capable of being an ethical guide and teacher; and she believes this passionately: Never
to beat and bruise ones wings against the inevitable but to throw the whole force of ones soul
towards the achievement of some possible better (GEL IV 497). In her essay Realism in Art,
George Eliot rails against the imaginary doctrine of Falsism, into which she folds those novels by
lady novelists that promulgate sentimentality and impossible virtue; and she demarcates the
purpose of realism as the impulse to truth-telling; and it is through this commitment to truth that
we can see reflected Spinozas ethics of knowledge and the attainment of blessedness.
Thus, we look through George Eliot to Spinozas Ethics for its eudaimonistic aspects;
how does he encourage us to go about increasing our knowledge, and so improving our lots and
the lots of others? George Eliot, in addition to imagining the purpose of realism to be to educate
our sympathy, embodies forth the core Spinozist tenet that to increase ones ethical efficacy in
the world, one must struggle to find the right actionand, by extension, for the writer to depict it
in order to empower others to act likewise. Nimrod Aloni points out that in the silent center of
Spinozas Ethics is a eudaimonistic principle; it is silent, though, because Spinoza is rightfully
not considered an educator: he was not a teacher by profession, as a philosopher he never wrote a
treatise on education, and one can hardly find references to his writings in academic courses on
the history and philosophy of education (531). Indeed, Spinozas reluctanceconscious or
unconsciousto deal with educational topics in his writing is perplexing, considering how
central a role our knowledge plays in his Ethics (ibid.). He enjoins us to increase and augment
our knowledge of the world as it really is, but plays dumb on how such an education could be
achieved. In spite of this silence, Spinoza is clearly concerned with, Aloni asserts, the question of
how best to live, and how to live in order to achieve blessedness; Spinoza admits that In life,
therefore, it is especially useful to perfect, as far as we can, our intellect, or reason. In this one

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thing consists mans highest happiness, or blessedness (Ethics IV.Appendix). Implicitly, then,
we must seek to improve our reason, and there is no more traditional space to do so than in the
space understood as education. George Eliot recognizes the novel as a pedagogic space, one that
influences and informs our feelings; but she also pervasively includes scenes of education in her
novels. And so, for George Eliot, the choice of realism is no accidentit is the only form that
commits fiction to ethical instruction. The form of the novel, and the sort of engagement that the
reader has with the text is the means by which ethical principles are communicated to the reader;
and these ethical principles, as elucidated by Atkins, Nemoianu and Gatens, are eminently
Spinozist.
As Ellen Argyros claims, I believe her decision to turn her hand toward writing fiction
arose partly from a desire to gain greater influence over her audience without seeming overtly to
do so: to conceal the diagram within the picture (91).40 Instead of aspiring to didactically hold
forth (anonymously, as journalistic convention had it) in the form of the polemical essay, she
reoriented herself to the conveyance of philosophical truths and ethical imperatives by way of
fiction. Moreover, fiction is quite simply more popular, more widely read, more discussed in the
era; the imaginative relationship that readers have to characters is far more enduring and
compelling than they have with the formulations and abstractions of more rigorous nonfiction.41
One only has to read the letters that George Eliot received from Blackwood and others to admit
how deeply nineteenth-century readers reacted to fictional characters, or to think of the

40

Argyros is making a canny use of the Jamesian image of the figure in the carpet, a short story that is itself a
study in the relationship between the content of fiction and its form; it is likewise an apt metaphor for seeking out
the presence of philosophy in fiction.
41
J. Hillis Miller, in his deconstructive argument that pragmatically argues that the realist novel is not to be taken as
anything rigorously mimeticit is for him grounded in a zero of catachrestic language that can only build
representation built on analogy (77)nevertheless argues that realism has, and must have for George Eliot, an
effecta plus or minus sign in front of the zero that for George Eliot is all-important (79). Because, after all,
according to the ethical project of realism, it must make something happen in the pragmatic world of things and
people. It must make the correct things happen (73).

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apocryphal stories surrounding the publics mass mourning over the death of Dickenss Nell. But
unlike other Victorian novelists, whose impetus may have been to entertain or to reflect and
change social norms,42 George Eliots primary incentive for writing fiction was the conveyance
of philosophy: George Eliot alone came to fiction from philosophy (Stephen 68). George Eliot
thus endeavors in her project, concealing the ethical diagram within the fictional picture, to
paraphrase Argyros.43 And, as Martha Nussbaum clearly argues, it is, in fact, not possible to
speak about the moral view revealed within this text without speaking at the same time of the
created text, which exemplifies and expressed the responses of an imagination that means to care
for and to put itself there for us (140-141). To speak of what the novels of George Eliot are
teaching us, it is crucial that we understand that this is a lesson for us, a communication from one
consciousness to another, a lesson in ethics. So, too, must the reader seek to discern the
delicately-traced imprints of Spinozas philosophy in her fictions: the figure in the carpet.
A vital danger is present when readers import into the text too much of their own life and
experienceand by extension, their faults, failures, pettiness, and egoism. In writing any
careful presentation of human feelings, you must count on that infinite stupidity of the readers
who are always substituting their crammed notions of what ought to be felt for any attempt to
recall truly what they themselves have felt under like circumstances (GEL V 471). But, she
concludes, If Art does not enlarge mens sympathies, it does nothing morally. I have had heart-

42

The [Victorian] novelists were occupied in constructing a most elaborate panorama of the manners and customs
of their own times with a minuteness and psychological analysis not known to their predecessors. Their work is, of
course, an implicit criticism of life. Thackerays special bugbear, snobbism, represents the effete aristocratic
prejudices out of which the world was slowly struggling. Dickens applied fiction to assail the abuses which were a
legacy from the old orderdebtors prisons, and workhouses, and Yorkshire schools, and the circumlocution
office. The social question was being treated by Kingsley and Mrs. Gaskell. But little was said which had any
direct bearing upon those religious or philosophical problems in which George Eliot was especially interested.
(Stephen 68)
43
Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth has this cognate thing to say of realism: By successfully coordinating apparently
disparate elements, the realistic novelist asserts the existence of a common ordering system; apparently unrelated
particulars sooner or later reveal a connectedness, a pattern. (Realism and Consensus 57)

66

cutting experience that opinions are a poor cement between human souls; and the only effect I
ardently 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. (Pinney 440).
This philosophy, so often rehearsed in her essays and her criticism, is given no better
mouthpiece than Chapter 17 of Adam Bede. In the oft-discussed chapter, In Which the Story
Pauses a Little, George Eliot outlines what she means by realism when she uses itand uses it
as an explanation for the foregoing volume, which she imagined (however erroneously) failed to
capture the attention of readers weaned on more adventurous, exciting, or pious novels. She
begins sardonically: Certainly I could [make Rev. Irwine a wise old man], if I held it the highest
vocation of the novelist to represent things as they never have been and never will be. Then, of
course, I might refashion life and character entirely to my own liking (Adam Bede 193). This,
implicitly, is what others do, although she tactfully does not name names. But that is not the
highest vocation of the novelistthe latter word which invokes the deep sense of importance
George Eliot ascribes to her fictional labor. It is employment not to be taken lightly, and one that
carries a tremendous sense of responsibility for others. But it happens, on the contrary, that my
strongest effort is to avoid any such arbitrary picture, and to give a faithful account of men and
things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind. The mirror is doubtless defective; the
outlines will sometimes be disturbed, the reflection faint or confused; but I feel as much bound to
tell you as precisely as I can what the reflection is, as if I were in the witness-box narrating my
experience on oath (193). The language is of compulsion and obligation: witness-box, oath,
bound. These are significant words for a woman who was once rumored to have said that
Duty is one of the three keystone words to virtuous living. The image of the mirror, too,

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reinforces that she sees realism as mimesis, but she admits what many critics of realism argue,
which is that mimetic representation is a fiction in and of itself. Truth is subjective, George Eliot
admits; and as if invoking the passage in The Ethics that admits that man believes that what he
knows is the truth (even when it isnt), but believes rightly when it is (ever a generous sort of
admission!), she explains that that mirror may be prone to error, but not an error of intention. Her
intention is to be truthful and realistic; if she fails at it, it is because of a failure of her subjective
conception of that truth, not of the attempt itself. Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult, she
explains; Examine your words 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 harder than to say something fine about them which is not the exact truth (195). Realist
fiction is not easy. She clarifies in a Leaves from a Note-book that Practically, we must be
satisfied to aim at something short of perfection, and that the realist novelist must endeavor to
write without any cantwhich would carry the subject into Utopia away from existing needs
(Pinney 438). And although utopian images have a certain charm, and help the reception of
ideas as to constructive results, they hardly achieves as much as a vivid presentation of how
results have been actually brought about, especially in religious and social change (Pinney 447;
emphasis added). To paraphrase Marx, literature in its weakest form has only described the
world: the point is to change it. But to complicate matters further, the point is to change the
world by describing it.
After all, we must admit, the world is not just what we like (194). We would be remiss,
she explains, to require only idealized characters of novelists: to do so is to set ourselves up for
inevitable failure and disappointment when those aroundthose really livingare not so perfect
as those we read about. These fellow-mortals, she continues, every one, must be accepted as

68

they are: you can neither straighten their noses, nor brighten their wit, nor rectify their
dispositions; and it is these peopleamongst whom your life is passedthat it is needful you
should tolerate, pity, and love: it is these more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people, whose
movements of good you should be able to admirefor whom you should cherish all possible
hopes, all possible patience (194). George Eliot foregrounds the phenomenological relationship
between reader and textthe oscillation between the world presented inside of fiction, and the
world existing without. The world within, if it presents impossible human personages, jars
against the people we know in our lives, and spoils us of the possibility of tolerating, pitying,
and loving real people. These last three wordsthe middle term of which is problematic
nevertheless form a core of what she means by the concept of sympathy. We must be able to
accept others (a lesson communicated in Middlemarch, and explored in the second chapter), and
we must feel for them tenderness and love, as we might feel tenderness or love for the virtual
people we read of in realist fiction. Realist fiction is a training ground for ethics: if we can
manage to achieve sympathy for people who dont really exist, then eventually we may be able
to manifest such sympathy for those who surround us materially.
George Eliot values Dutch realist painting as an aesthetic corollary to what she hopes to
achieve in her realist fiction. It is a source of delicious sympathyin these faithful pictures of a
monotonous homely existence (195). The people painted therein are everyday, workaday
creatures such as any reader of her novels will encounter on a daily basis. Opposed to the
Madonnas and angels of idealized fiction, we must learn to embrace those old women scraping
carrots, for in this world [the material world] there are so many of those common coarse
people, who have no picturesque sentimental wretchedness! It is so needful we should remember
their existence, else we may happen to leave them quite out of our religion and philosophy, and

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frame lofty theories which only fit a world of extremes (196). George Eliot delivers a stunning
rebuke to the idealists and Kant who frame moral philosophy in the abstract, and who pander to
those polar extremes: extreme, sentimental wretchedness, or impossibly virtuous beauty. The
word sentimental here makes a crucial interventionsentimentality forms the foundation of
sham emotions, of false affects and beliefs; it clouds our knowledge and obscures our
blessedness in a haze of unreality. She avows here a materialism of the novel: that its realism
should represent the world as it really isreplete, implicitly, with the structures and ideologies
that shape the common man into existence. The old woman scraping carrots became an old
woman scraping carrots, and not an angeland not by choice, surelybecause of the real,
material forces of the world, such forces as we ourselves (in the real world) live amidst. There
are few prophets in the world; few sublimely beautiful women; few heroes. I cant afford to give
all my love and reverence to such rarities: I want a great deal of those feelings for my everyday
fellow-men, especially for the few in the foreground of the great multitude, whose faces I know,
whose hands I touch, for whom I have to make way with kindly courtesy (197).44 By
representing the evolution of our better feelings (or affects, in contemporary Spinozist
terminology) is to invest in a generous leap of impulsesto swell the flood of sympathy in us
beholders (451). Doing this, the author can effect a change in the performance of her readers
affects.
44

It would be worthwhile to note the use of the word multitude herethe cornerstone of Spinozas ethics-cumpolitics. It is on the basis of the individuals evolved consciousness of other people as aids to his own selfpreservation that begets the concept of the multitude as a composite or a concatenation (the latter term is George
Eliots choice in translation) of like-minded individuals pursuing a commonly-held good. The problem is, however,
that George Eliot, as is explained above, does not translate Spinozas Latin multitudo into multitude, but rather
the vulgar. This latter term, George Eliots choice, appears to connote a dirtiness and irrationality that the
multitude does not necessarily suffer under, and appears derogatory to the contemporary ear. However, when one
considers the tail end of the passage quote above, it comes into focus that the vulgar are merely those strangers
that one encounters on a daily basisthose strangers who do not share your class or privilege, but nevertheless
cohabit the spaces in which you move. And while it was certainly common in the Victorian era to other them
(Engels remarks at length upon the social, geospatial characteristics that facilitate this in his Conditions of the
Working Classes), she nevertheless sees them as equal to her, inasmuch as they deserve the force of her sympathy
as all others do.

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In invoking the economy of sympathy, she entreats the reader to confess his or her own
small reserves of sympathy, and points forward to the most-repeated quote in Middlemarch: if
we had endless sympathy, were awake to the open-ended, endless presence of the other, we
might die of that roar. The fact is, however, that were relentless egoists, even when were
capable of transcending, on occasion, that egoism. The world around is littered with othersbut
unless we seek to empty ourselves entirely and put ourselves at the service of those
multitudinous others, we can only dole out such sympathy as we can afford. She is cheekily
invoking the nature of Victorian philanthropy, which rejoices in sums collected and distributed.
However, the realist novel, when it depicts people like those whom we know and encounter,
raises the probability that our limited sympathy will be directed to those who deserve it, instead
of the impossibly good and virtuous, or the only-sentimentally-wretched. And it isnt just that the
realist novel depicts one or two of these people but that it creates for us a panorama of social
life that includes and incorporates not one, but many. Alex Woloch explains, This tension
between the one and the many becomes particularly pressing in the realist novel, which has
always been praised for two contradictory generic achievements: depth psychology and social
expansiveness, depicting the interior life of a singular consciousness and casting wide narrative
gaze over a complex social universe. The novels commitment to everyday life promotes an
inclusive, extensive narrative gaze, while its empiricist aesthetics highlights the importance and
authenticity of ordinary human interiority (19).
In his earliest work, Spinoza takes on Cartesian principles of physics; the text is replete
with images of forces acting and reacting, with geometric line drawings illustrating the ways in
which Descartes imagines that bodies move along planes and lines. But Descartes philosophy,
which states that, as David Bidney points out, this or that exceeds human grasp, is inherently

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limited in Spinozas mind; it is not that any thing that naturally occurs is unintelligible or
impossible to understand but simply that Descartes mind and method are limited (as all minds
are) (Early Philosophical Writings xiv). Spinoza strives for clarity, and drafts a rebuttal to
Descartes physics that establishes radical revisions, but concedes the basic premises of physics:
action, reaction; forces; movement.
In recognizing that subjects are likewise subject to forces, George Eliots realism draws
on Spinozas geometrical philosophy in order to give dimensionality to the project of realism and
imbue it with an almost-analytical clarity. From inside of Spinozas immanence, certain things
that, to Descartes, are discrete and singular, become effects of the univocity of matter.
Extension, Spinoza sets out, is that which consists of three dimensions, and we distinguish
space from extension only in reason; actually there is no difference (EPW 53). He goes on to
explain in Lemma 1 to Part Two of the Principles of the Philosophy of Descartes that where
there is extension or space there is necessarily substance, which is correlated to his definition of
a vacuum as extension without corporeal substance (53). While these two concepts may seem
to be contrary, they are not; corporeal substance is only one of the modes of expression of
substance, and extension is material, even if not corporeal. The nature of body or matter within
immanence consists solely in extension, and further, space and body are not actually
different (Principles II.P2c). Clarifying the implications of this scientistic explanation of bodies
and space and extension, he explains that, as related to Godthe all-substance, as it were, of
immanenceAlthough we say that God is everywhere, we do not thereby concede that God is
extended, that isthat he is corporeal (Principles II.P2Scholium). This early work thereby
clarifies the claims he makes more explicitly about the nature of immanence and impingement in
his Ethics. God is all substance, and moreover, all substance is God; but this does not mean that

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God is the anthropomorphized God of religion (as he further develops in the Tractatus) nor in the
framework of pantheism (God is, and God is all things). Instead, all is substance, and that
substance is expression or a mode of God. The other implication of this early work is the
dimensionality that it gives his Ethics; it is also what permits Deleuze, for instance, to reduce
Spinoza to a planar geometer of affective forces. Nevertheless, this three-dimensionality is
crucial to understanding the complex interplay of forces that George Eliot adapts in her realism.
George Eliots definition of sympathy, as a capacious orientation of the self to the
possibility of the other, is not, however, easy. Sympathy is incredibly hard to come by, and
difficult to generate and maintain. Lewes agrees: Sympathy is one of the great psychological
mysteriesand as a psychologist I am bound to explain it, but cant (GEL V 376). We are
essentially egoistic creatures pursuing our conatus, often at a cost to others around us. The secret,
she explains plaintively, is that sympathy is borne of sufferingideally, ours or that of those we
love; secondarily, that of those characters depicted in realist novels. We are students of that
misery, either felt or virtual.
Let us be thankful that our sorrow lives in us as an indestructible force, only changing its
form, as forces do, and passing from pain into sympathythe one poor word which
includes all our best insight and our best loveWe get accustomed to mental as well as
bodily pain, without, for all that, losing our sensibility to it: it becomes a habit of our
lives, and we cease to imagine a condition of perfect ease as possible for us. Desire is
chastened into submission; and we are contented with our day when we have been able to
bear our grief in silence, and act as if we were not suffering. For it is such periods that the
sense of our lives having visible and invisible relations beyond any of which either our

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present or prospective self is the centre, grows like a muscle that we are obliged to lean
on and exert. (Adam Bede 532)
George Eliot understands herself to be a cruel taskmistressever reminding us in the labor of
the novelist that we are suffering; we are either suffering really in our minds, or virtually (on
behalf of the characters), or we are suffering really in body. George Eliots novels are not often
happy, however they do communicate the misery that can be, in turn, converted into
sympathywhich permits the development of happiness. This suffering chastens our minds and
hearts into compliance with the actions of sympathy, working to convert, like a body
metabolizes, sorrow into sympathy. That muscle builds up over time until it becomes automatic
for us to rely upon it; and although that muscle may feel like a withered limb or an injured leg,
afflicted as it is by pain, it eventually gets restored to a more exalted usethe location of our
sympathy. We cannot harden our hearts if we make ourselves available to the lessons
communicated by novels; it would be impossible, George Eliot feels.
Although her novels rarely have happy endings, their upshot is of cautious optimism:
optimism that sympathy can be engendered by her novels, and that it can be achieved by these
erring humans. After all, as she explains, I need not tell you that my book will not present my
own feelings about human life if it produces on readers whose minds are really receptive the
impression of blank melancholy and despair (GEL V 261). Instead, as in her celebrated poem,
Oh May I Join the Choir Invisible, she desires to reach / That purest heaven, be to other souls
/ The cup of strength in some great agony, / Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love / Beget the
smiles that have no cruelty (Poems 442). The novel, ultimately, leaves us the wiser for having
read of the sufferings of people like us; even if characterized by its virtuality, it nevertheless has
the effect (inasmuch as even those who are materially real to us are nevertheless virtual in their

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absence, or in our consideration of them) of elevating our fund of sympathy toward them.
Though painful, The growth of higher feeling within us is like the growth of a faculty, bringing
with it a sense of added strength: we can no more return to a narrower sympathy, than a painter
or a musician can wish to return to his cruder manner, or a philosopher to his less complete
formula (Adam Bede 577). If George Eliots work be successfuland there is, unfortunately, no
way to judge completely, unless by the enduring success of her novelsthen we have been
irreparably enlarged and enabled. Difficulty, the watchword, is nevertheless also the threshold to
which the labor aspires; if it were not difficult, then it would be another of that too much of
literature, a silly novel, a passing fancy, a temporal and temporary delight. And Spinoza
closes The Ethics with the reminder that resounds in all of George Eliots work: But all things
excellent are as difficult as they are rare (Ethics V.P42).
And so in the following chapters, I consider moments and tropes in George Eliots later
fictions that accord with or express her commitment to and critique of Spinozas philosophy. In
the first chapter of the dissertation, The Web, The Glass, The Body: Immanence, Science and
Metaphor in Middlemarch, I look at the ways in which George Henry Lewess work on the
natural sciences, George Eliots investment in natural philosophy (the discursive predecessor to
the natural sciences), and the Spinozist concept of immanence dovetail in her most famous novel.
Lewes was famously a jack-of-all-trades, working in and around discourses of philosophy,
theater, art, criticism, journalism, fiction, and various other fields, but the work that consumed
much of his professional life was his increasingly deep interest in the philosophical implications
of science. And although Lewess work is distinct from George Eliots, she nevertheless
accompanied him on many a naturalist excursion, and was the interlocutor for many of his most
important ideas about the nature of the mind, cognition, and the body. She also ended her career

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in wrapping up his lifes work, the Problems of Life and Mind; she was intimately familiar with
his scientific endeavors, all told. So it is no surprise that the most impactful metaphorical
language in Middlemarch (subtitled A Study of Provincial Life) is rooted in a naturalists
understanding of the physical, biological, and zoological world. By deploying a series of
characters, chief amongst them the narrator, whose investments (ranging from casual to serious)
in science color their characterizations of the human and social world of Middlemarch, the sheer
weight of these references develop into a subtle, but remarkable, endorsement of Spinozas
philosophy of immanencea cornerstone of his ethical philosophy. While many other critics
have explored the nature of organicism and totality in George Eliots work, no one has yet
approached it with an eye to the relevance of Spinoza in such a construct, focusing instead on the
influence of contemporary, nineteenth-century thinkers.
Immanence, for George Eliot, is always-already metaphorical, and, as in Spinozas own
account in The Ethics, elusive, darting into and out of our understanding. Perceiving immanence
would require, in his estimation, blessed knowledge of God, a knowledge we rarely attain, and
never sustain. But glimpses of it can be afforded through a sly, self-conscious acknowledgement
of the slipperiness of language itself through the deployment of metaphor, the figure that
displaces equivalence into suggestive likeness; George Eliots characters do this with alacrity
and acuteness, playing with the language of the natural world to describe the modes which render
all things made of the same substance and expressive of the same essence. The microscope of her
keen intellect is filtered variously through her characters use of language, and these metaphors
for immanence (which is itself, as explained in the chapter, always-already metaphorical) overlay
a natural-scientific understanding of the world on top of descriptions of human interactions,
human nature, and human impingement. In such a way, her most famous metaphors-- the pier

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glass which reflects and refracts our own self-centered egoism; the human body as a complexly
functioning system of interconnected parts; and the figure of the weballude to immanence and
vis--vis this allusion, describe the impingement and interconnection of humans and human
behavior, thus pointing the way to an elucidation and elaboration of an affective ethics grounded
in Spinozas philosophy.
This affective ethics is explored in chapter two of the dissertation, largely through the oftexplored trope of sympathy, especially as this trope appears in Middlemarch. Although much ink
has been spilled on the idea of sympathy in George Eliots novels, little consensus has been
achieved. Although, the idea of sympathy owes much to Feuerbachs philosophylargely in his
invocation, explored above in this introduction, of the interrelationship between the I and
Thou, contained both within and without the individual. But Feuerbachs invocation of
sympathy is also indebted to Spinozas affective ethics, and the two, when one considers George
Eliots intimate familiarity with both philosophers, dovetail in an investment in sympathy as a
crypto-phenomenological affect: an affect which simultaneously disorients us from our essential
egoism (the bugbear of George Eliots exploration of human nature, and a foundational element
of Spinozas philosophy) and then reorients us, capaciously, to the perpetual possibility, if not
the presence, of an other.
The understanding of this model of sympathy as a generous opening-up towards others
requires an investment in immanence, an endorsement of our necessary equality-in-substance
with others, and the equivalence of being and action as physical and metaphysical, material,
substance. George Eliots characters only sporadically exemplify this sort of sympathy, although
Spinoza, too, recognizes how rarely we achieve blessedness. But Dorotheas successful evolution
over the course of the novel is meant to be an education of her readers own sympathies, a

77

project she outlines much more explicitly (and perhaps, as a result, more immaturely) in Chapter
17 of Adam Bede and in Scenes of Clerical Life. But her mature realism here forces the issue: if
the novel is meant to educate the reader to her ethical responsibilities, then the image of
Dorothea in Middlemarch is meant to be a secular parable. The second chapter, entitled How To
Hear a Squirrels Heartbeat takes as its foundation the novels most famous passage regarding
our moral stupidity, and moves toward proving that, ultimately, the narrative strives to get us,
as Dorothea does, to recognize the validity of equivalent centres of self other than ourselves.
But if the education of the readers sensibilities and sympathies happens implicitly in
Middlemarch, both Felix Holt, the Radical and Daniel Deronda seek to depict, explicitly, the
education of our sympathies more explicitly and programmatically. Chapter Three starts with the
latter novel, and explores the pivotal Chapter 36; What am I to do?: Knowledge and Praxis in
Chapter 36 of Daniel Deronda deconstructs the chapter with an eye to the way in which George
Eliot depicts the dialogue between Gwendolen Harleth and Daniel Deronda as a socratic exercise
in the education of herand by extension, oursympathy. In laying the dialogue out in a timehonored philosophical form, she gives credence to the ethical underpinnings of her fiction, and
the question-and-answer format of the dialogue is such that it anticipates and interpolates our
questions about the applicability of an affective ethical philosophy in our own lives.
Gwendolens naivety is a figure for the readers own egoism and philosophical ignorance, and
she backdoors Spinozist ethics through the mouthpiece of Daniel Deronda. If Middlemarch is a
parable, then this chapter in Daniel Deronda is a primer; the former reveals to us through the
mechanisms of realist fiction (an investment in characters psychology, a believable
representation of human behavior, natural and truthful actions, descriptions, and behavior,
all filtered through the interrogatory mechanism of an omniscient narrator) the importance of

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sympathy, but the latter communicates its necessity through an outline of pragmatic action, of
philosophy-in-action, or praxis.
In such a way, George Eliot depicts the process of intersubjective education as the praxis
by which we become more capaciously oriented toward to the possibility of the presence of the
other; and by depicting education in the medium of realist fiction, she likewise enacts the
education of her reader, a figurative trope that appears with frequency in her fiction, as critics
have noted. But this vision of education is rooted in Spinozas framework of trifurcated
knowledge, which trades on the notions of adequate and inadequate ideas, and the ways in which
the latter interrupt our more blessed knowledge of immanence; George Eliots spectrum of
humanity in her novels shows the breadth and depth of our knowledge, or ego- and ignorancemediated lack thereof. Gwendolen, in submitting herself to the pedagogy of Daniel Deronda,
undergoes a gradual cognitive transformation, akin to what George Eliot aspires to achieve in the
generic form of the realist novel.
Chapter Four continues the exploration begun in Chapter Three, but extends the
consideration of an education in the praxis of sympathy to its more social implications in the
invocations of collective politics in Felix Holt, the Radical. Education and the Transformation
of the Ethical into the Political in Felix Holt, the Radical takes its cues from the
interconnections between Spinozas work in The Ethics and his work in the Political Treatise,
through the lens of George Eliots only overtly political novel. In this novel, George Eliot
leverages the education of Esther Lyons at the hands of Felix Holt to demonstrate the continuity
between an individual educationthe one-on-one, Socratic form so overtly present in Chapter
36 of Daniel Derondainto a consideration of the social ramifications of such an individual
education. Esthers evolution in the novel, primarily through the engine of Felixs unwearying

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education of and impact on her, charts the ripple effect that such an interpersonal encounter can
have in the shaping and inflection of collective politics. While George Eliots politics in this
novel are far from radicaltheyve certainly come under fire from leftist criticsshe
demonstrates the ambivalence inherent in a Spinozist ethics of the multitude (which George Eliot
translates, tellingly, as explained above, as the vulgar), and foregrounds the importance of
education, knowledge, and intelligence in ethical behavior.
In the fifth and final chapters of the dissertation, I study at length the collusion of the
concepts of family, nation, ethics, and politics in two of her later works, the long-form narrative
poem The Spanish Gypsy and her final novel, Daniel Deronda. Multitudinous Imperatives:
Kinship, Ethics and Nation in The Spanish Gypsy and Daniel Deronda, specifically examines
the ways in which George Eliot (mis)reads or critiques Spinozas visions of political
organization, or, at the least, charts one conceivable endgame of its populist underpinnings.
George Eliot, acutely seizing on the fact the multitudes composition is governed solely by like
feelings and ideas, can just as easily coalesce around a sentiment of national belonging,
especially when such a nationalist sentiment is ratified by familial ties and the imperatives of
kinship. In both of these late works, she grapples with the Janus face of collective politics: on the
one hand, it can provide a model of ethical obligation and belonging; on the other, joining into
the multitude can come at the cost of self-identity. The political horizons of Spinozist ethics are
thereby questioned; he admits freely that individuals are egoistic beings, looking to continue in
their own survival and thriving. Although he acknowledges that, frequently, the best way to do
that is to align individual desire with collective desire or destiny, what is sacrificed, typically, at
the cost of some disorientation and loss of sense of self, is the primacy of the individual ego. And
so, in spite of George Eliots seeming-endorsement of nationalist politics (certainly, in keeping

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with her time, if not progressive, as many Zionist admirers of Deronda note), George Eliot
nevertheless approaches such a solution to individual destiny with a significant amount of
trepidation.
George Eliot famously disavowed political interests and engagements during her lifetime,
even while she wrote texts that either explicitly or circuitously took on politics as their subject
matter. The result is a long tradition of critical interrogation of the nature and tenor of her
politics, but too few readers have approached her work through the lens of Spinozas philosophy
with which she was so intimately familiar, preferring instead to read into it Comtean positivism,
or Mills utilitarianism, or other ideologies that had more tangible currency during the period.
But George Eliots Spinozism was ahead of her time; she anticipated the growing tide of interest
in his work in the twentieth century. And so it is high time to reconsider the impact of Spinozas
philosophy on George Eliots workand a ripe time to re-read George Eliots politics, especially
as they may relate to a resurgence of interest in (Spinozas) ethics at this juncture.
The dissertation as a whole seeks to redress the absence of Spinoza in readings of her
works, and, given developing and evolving interest in Spinozas work, yoking George Eliots
work into that emerging thread of theoretical and political discourse, hopefully finding a new
audience for her work, and likewise insisting that philosophy is not the only medium in which
philosophy is communicated. It also seeks to deepen our understanding of the philosophical
underpinnings of her realist fiction and to imagine how these subterranean commitments may
have propagated through the longer history of British realist fiction.

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Chapter One: The Web, The Glass, The Body: Immanence, Science and Metaphor in
Middlemarch

George Eliots fiction is strewn with references to developments in science, but these
allusions are nowhere near as dense as in Middlemarch.1 As explored in the subsequent chapter,
sympathy, for instance, is frequently marked by the repeated trope of electricity, shocks, and
currents: Will Ladislaw is something of a live wire. Science is, in the Victorian era, handmaiden
to a wide variety of cultural expressions. Led by the esteemed critics Sally Shuttleworth, Gillian
Beer, and George Levine, contemporary Victorian scholars have been eager to assert that science
and literature in the Victorian era colluded in the larger, gestalt category of culture. George
Levine redescribes, for instance, the traditional gulf between the claims of science and literature
under the rubric of one culture, but in doing so, however, he is quick to remind us that this
does not mean unified science and literature (One Culture 4). Instead, what happens in
science matters inevitably to what happens everywhere else and that both literature and science
are implicated in the larger discursive formation of culture, generally (One Culture 5-6).
1

Robert Greenberg, in Plexuses and Ganglia: Scientific Allusion in Middlemarch, carefully traces out the
manifold references to developments in nineteenth-century science that permeate George Eliots novels. His
exhaustive (though sometimes bafflingly piecemeal) essay works out the various references with cross-references to
the texts that would have been available to Lewes and George Eliot during the composition of her novel, and he is
also careful to read the occasional essays that George Eliot generated during her journalistic career that reference
developments in science. Reading these allusions properly, Greenberg argues, reveals the vital structure and
thousand minute processes that make up the texture of Middlemarch (52). Even a brief perusal of George Eliots
writing journal reveals long quotes from scientific source material, demonstrating that her assiduous study (most
infamously brought to bear on her composition of Romola) meant becoming fluent in a variety of scientific
disciplines. George Eliots index for her journal reveal some of the concerns she variously pursued: Forest trees
and Moisture, effect on plants are the two explicitly mentioned subjects (4-5). A glance through the contents also
reveals a study of the mineralogical properties of semi-precious gemstones (78-79) and the geological origins of
springs (38-39).

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Levine argues that, ultimately, Literature has been unable to avoid science because science
asserts an epistemological authority so powerful that it can determine even how we allow
ourselves to imagine the world, or to resist that authority (One Culture 8). The draw of science
is that it is the discourse that claims a privileged ownership of epistemology; as a result, any
literature that seeks to explain or understand the workings of human beings courts the authority
that science presumes. Realism, in its aspiration to mimesis, likewise grapples with discourses of
epistemology. Realism, then, as Levine, Beer and others have noted, is an adjacent discourse to
science, even if it doesnt directly invoke or utilize science as explicitly as Middlemarch does.
One of the impetuses behind the coalescing of the discourses of science and literature in
the nineteenth century is the waning hegemony of the absolute power of a Christian God. This is
a longer movement in the nineteenth century, a gradual development; Levine, like others, sees
the Victorian era as a gradual development of or move towards a godless culture. Levine argues
that both science and realist literature reflect a cluster of cultural developments that assert the
importance of objectivity, the desire for truth and truthfulness, and an insecurity begotten by the
dawning fear that there is not something or someone guiding erring humans. Thus, he has
consistently found that the most fruitful focal point for an understanding and valuing of this
effort is at the conjunction between science and literature, science pressing increasingly toward
recognition of an objective reality apparently incommensurate with human feelings and desires,
literature pressing toward the humanizing of that knowledgeAmong the Victorians, the new
ascendency of science helped move literatureand the cultureaway from reliance on a
transcendent reality to complete its stories satisfactorily (Realism, Ethics, and Secularism 14).
This is echoed by J. Hillis Miller, who argues that most of the major Victorian novelists, in
adopting the genre of realism and the device of the omniscient narrator, are responding

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organically to this loss of a transcendent absolute. These narrators perfect knowledge is rather
that of pervasive presence than that of transcendent vision (Form 64). Instead of the divine
knowledge of a world and of the human souls which he himself has made (65), Victorian
novelists work from inside an immanent sense of the world and nature, and tend to assume that
each man finds himself from his birth surrounded by a transindividual mindwhich surrounds
him, embraces him, permeates him (67). Though Millers concern here is not with science (as in
some of his other essays) he is nevertheless commenting on the ways in which Victorian
realisms formal concerns reflect a collective social belief which is tied to a loss of faith in God
coupled with a rapidly increasing faith in the claims of science. Gillian Beer reflects on this very
phenomenon, stating Victorian novelists increasingly seek a role for themselves within the
language of the text as observer or experimenter, rather than as a designer or god. Omniscience
goes, omnipotence is concealed (45). The narrators of these novels have access to knowledge of
the world as he or she can observe it, as if he or she were diffused throughout it, immanent in it,
and not superior to it. And throughout the Victorian novel, there is a sly attempt to conceal the
true position of the narrator; at times, the narrator appears quite clearly as a character within the
novel (as is the case with Scenes of Clerical Life), while at others the narrator is a more diffuse
presence in the text, unanchored to any clear subject inside the action of the novel (as is the case
with Middlemarch). In the latter case, however, the voice that narrates the novel is never more
than human, and certainly not divine. Beer further notes, The loss of omniscience is felt
particularly in fiction where the design of the narrative and the activity of narration would seem
to imply an organizing power. Writers could no longer easily share the Shaftesburyian ethic that
the artist is imitating God (45). In the absence of Gods absolute authority, writers turn to the
invocation and depiction of the human to know how humans act.

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Along the same lines, Selma Brody comments on the prevalence of scientific allusion in
Victorian literature as evidence of the cross-pollination of the two discourses around the
scientific method, a paradigm which allowed for the expression of uncertainty and probability, in
the place of an absolute certainty formerly guaranteed on the basis of religious faith (43). The
scientific methodmost expressive in the work of experimental scientists, among whom Brody
includes George Eliot, and we must likewise include Lewesis an influential model for the
contingencies expressed in complex, realist fiction. Divinity aside, the history of science, in the
empiricist vein, seeks to describe objectively the nature of the world around us through
experimentation, verification, and observation. Objectivity, however, as we have repeatedly
discovered throughout the course of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries, is a
fiction, a nonhuman condition, as Levine puts it (One Culture 12). Although perhaps the
poststructuralist developments in late twentieth-century theory and philosophy have done the
most obvious work to debunk the myth of objectivity (Barthess myth-busting, for instance, or
Derridas differance), the nineteenth century saw its share of philosophers and thinkers that
sought to insist that science was never quite free of the filter of the subject, of ego and
personality. Lewess own scientific magnum opus, the Problems of Life and Mind, seeks
relentlessly to argue for the acknowledgement of the subjective as inseparable from the
objective. No scientific labor can, nor should it, forego the inflection of the subject, according to
Lewes. Knowledge is arrived at through the work of thought and of feeling, both of which are
done by the sensory organs and organized into a complex hierarchy of varying sensual
impressions of the world.2 The challenge, for him, is to be able to rigorously parse the role that

This line is also very much implicated in the materialist genealogy of philosophy, as noted in the introduction.
Feuerbach, for instance, repeatedly insists that we can only know ourselves through sensuous activity, an idea
picked up and carried by Marx in his early philosophic works. This knowledge of the world participates in a subtly
dialectical phenomenology adapted from Hegel into a feedback loop of the senses of the world and the internally

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the subject has in framing or warping the conclusions found in the performance of scientific
labor. Lewes is actually drawing on the Spinozist notion that knowledge is always first and
foremost subjective knowledge, that the subject knows only of and through himself. The
perfection or objective truth of any subjects knowledge rests in how much they are capable of
simultaneously understanding and separating their own interests from the materiality of the
knowledge.3
We have in Middlemarch a narrator who is eminently human, and thus prone to an
inescapably subjective implication in its own narration, whilst appearing clear-headed and
seemingly-objective.4 The dialogic interplay between coy self-implication and seemingobjectivity in Middlemarch is typically filtered through an invocation of and play with science;

composed knowledge of the world itself. Only through this interaction with the material world, with things as they
actually are, can we come to establish ourselves as legitimate subjects; but unlike Hegel, Feuerbach and Marxs
labor never seeks to progress to an ideal or abstracted knowledge of ourselves contingent on the revelation of the
Absolute Spirit, nor can our self-consciousness dialectically evolve without reference to the material world outside
of us, as in Hegel.
3

Walter Pater extends these subjective uncertainties at the end of The Renaissance, in a position that became so
important to the modernist writers, whose stress on individuals consciousness is so paramount. The process of
knowledge is the gathering of sense-impressions, taking for granted that this gathering is always-already the work of
thought and feeling (151). Pater carefully explains the process by which those raw encounters with the world
around us are taken into the cave of the mind to become distilled and abstracted, sorted and classified, whereupon
they are dissipated and each object is loosed into a group of impressions. At this point, unhindered by the
solidity with which language invests these objects, these impressions contract[] still further until the whole
scope of observation is dwarfed into the narrow chamber of the individual mind. At this point, Pater reveals the
thrust of the whole passage in the pithy declaration of the inextricability of the subject: Experienceis ringed
round for each of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to
usEvery one of those impressions is the impression of the individual in his own isolation (151).3 Paters
influence on George Eliot, vis--vis the early publication of selections from what would later become Studies in the
Renaissance, published in book form in 1873, has yet to be thoroughly assessed. Of course, George Eliots tenure as
editor of the Westminster Review ended in 1854, she remained an avid reader of the periodical. Indeed, George Eliot
met Pater at a dinner party in 1870 (Haight 428), and although she appeared to agree with R. C. Jebb that Pater
misrepresented the great lineaments of the great creative works, there is no colluding evidence that she would
fundamentally disagree with the contemporaneous applicability of Paters thesis (Haight 464). Any attempt to ignore
or to disavow the presence of the self in any labor that implicates the selfthat is, all laboris foolhardy and
dangerously misleading. George Eliot and the Victorian novelists, anticipating Pater and, later, the modernists,
struggle to move from the model of transcendent omniscience to a model of tempered or filtered humanity. The
Shaftesburyian ethic of the all-seeing, all-knowing God is impossible, and its loss is felt keenly.
4

Wormalds famous claim in Microscopy and Semiotic in Middlemarch, that the tension in the novel between
these warring impulses really points to the foundational claims of deconstruction avant-la-lettre, will be discussed in
the course of this chapter.

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the narrators and the authors knowledge that science is the ground upon which this particular
war is being waged is woven into the dense fabric of the novel. The narrator is always
implicated, though not always self-implicated; but its very work of culling and organizing the
experiences of the inhabitants of Middlemarch and in describing them, points to the tendency in
Victorian novels that Miller characterizes as transindividual.
The transindividual nature of the narrator and realisms commitments to what Raymond
Williams calls, in his famous characterization, knowable communities, encourages George
Eliot to adopt a decidedly scientific outlook towards her characters and story. While Adam Bede,
for instance, abounds in artistic allusions and reference points, Middlemarch is full of scientific
allusions and metaphors. This is perhaps because George Eliot became increasingly invested in
developments in science throughout her life with George Henry Lewes.
In Middlemarch, George Eliot utilizes a variety of scientific references in an effort to
convey her investment in a philosophy of immanence borrowed from Spinozas Ethics.
Spinozas philosophy of immanence is, briefly, the conviction that the world is composed, as it
were, of a singular substanceGod, or Nature.5 This renders all things (for lack of a better word)
in the world but a modification, expression, or substantiation of that substance; this radical unity
implies radical and potentially irreligious interpenetration. The reception history of Spinozas
philosophy is fraught with tense misreadings of his immanence, and he was dogged in his life
and after it with charges of pantheism and atheism alike.6 George Eliot, philosophically

Most translators of Spinoza translate deus sive natura as God, to render the Ethics consistent and intelligible,
but George Eliots manuscript of her translation assiduously preserves God (or Nature) in each invocation.
6
Lewes ably explains the reigning confusion over Spinozas reception; Spinoza was alternately condemned as an
atheist or mistakenly celebrated as a pantheist. Of this, Lewes remarks in an article in the Fortnightly Review that
I have no hesitation in avowing that many of Spinozas conclusions are such as must shock all Christians,
and most Theists, that to him even more than to Kant should be applied the epithet of all shattering, that
logically there is but a trivial distinction between his Acosmism, which makes God the one universal being,
and Atheism, which makes the cosmos one universal existence. Observe, I say logically there is but little
difference; spiritually, the difference is profound. His Acosmism may denote what is scarcely

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sophisticated, and no stranger to theological controversy, sidesteps questions of theology and


makes use of the religions adjacent, secular discourse, science, in order to obliquely encode
immanence in Middlemarch. Science, particularly as it is ostensibly a historical outgrowth from
philosophyat least in the nineteenth century, during which the two disciplines diverged in an
interesting wayis a strategic interlocutor for philosophical discourse. George Eliot, in
portraying the workings of scienceexplicitly, in the physiological research of Lydgate;
implicitly, in the amateur scientific enthusiasm of Reverend Farebrother; implicitly, in the
intellectual ambitions of Casaubon; and explicitly, in the figurative language of Mrs.
Cadwallader capably but subtly incorporates Spinozist philosophy in her novel through
masterful sleight-of-hand.
Admittedly, there is something potentially disingenuous about reading the scientific labor
and writing of G. H. Lewes as akin to George Eliots own understanding and beliefs about the
nature of science. There is the danger of biographical slippageof imagining that their oeuvres
are wholly complementary-- grounded in a reading of their relationship as a sort of Platonic
ideal. Parsing this sensitively, George Levine admits that although there is sometimes a disjunct
between Lewess beliefs about science and George Eliots, for she took the liberty to disagree
with many of the ideas in it, she nevertheless agreed with most of it [Lewess Problems of Life
and Mind]; and it provides an important non-fictional analogue to the last two great novels.
Lewes book should remind us that George Eliot wrote with sophistication about what was going
distinguishable from Atheism; it connotes something utterly opposed to Atheism; and we know that he
explicitly and emphatically repudiated Atheism. (398)
Beyond this, Lewes argues, Spinozas true wish is to demonstrate the essential nature of Religion, and the political
nature of a church (403), an argument that lines Spinoza up neatly with Feuerbach. George Eliots translation of
Feuerbachs The Essence of Christianity argues less about the political nature of the church than of the
anthropomorphically foolish projection of man into the placeholder of God in order to make sense of a universe, the
laws of which escaped the rudimentary intellect of the average man, who sought instead to describe miracles and
ascribe omnipotence to a unified, super-human, transcendent force. But while Feuerbach might hold up to charges of
atheism, Spinoza would not brook such accusations, and worked tirelessly to maintain spirituality in the face of
human foundering regarding religion.

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on in mathematics, physics, biology, and psychology (Realism 29). We would do well to


remember, too, that with the exception of The Impressions of Theophrastus Such, George Eliots
last sustained work was to compile and edit Lewess last volume of the above work, a labor
which consumed her and completely absorbed her energies, and was performed under the
impelling motive of a deeply-felt grief and responsibility. Gordon Haight remarks on the depth
of the duty she felt to Lewess final manuscripts for Problems of Life and Mind. Before she was
capable of moving on to her own manuscript for The Impressions of Theophrastus Such, she
ploughed doggedly on through the [Lewess] manuscript, correcting, amplifying, abridging
(517; emphasis added). Indeed, George Eliot made a signal decision to publish the first part of
the final volume separately; the tightly-edited and influential The Study of Psychology thus saw
the light of day in accordance with her wishes (520). She also furthermore took great pains to
establish and fill the George Henry Lewes Studentship in Physiology, a scholarship to a
worthy student to extend the interdisciplinary labor that Lewes had dedicated his late life to
performing (522). Reading and editing the manuscript for Problems of Life and Mind required a
thorough knowledge of its contentsone we know that she had before his death, as he was
composing it, and a familiarity which extends to his earlier work on animals and the ecology of
sea-life. Lewes and George Eliots relationship was such that it was, as every biographer notes,
incredibly organic, interconnected, and mutually informed. One recalls fondly the many passages
in the biographies that detail their study practices, which were collaborativethey learned
Spanish, for instance, by reading aloud to each other and quizzing the other on vocabulary and
grammatical forms (Haight 378-379). Thus, it is important, as the title of the twentieth-century
journal denotes (George Eliot-George Henry Lewes Studies), to be able to read together the
juncture of their two seemingly-disparate careers. Though fiction was George Eliots exclusive

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domain after Lewess failed early attempts to write novels and plays, he was nevertheless an
acute literary critic; and although science was ostensibly Lewess domain, George Eliot was
well-versed in science and scientific discoveries, and the diction and discourse of various
sciences permeated her journalism and fiction. As Richard Menke notes, Both Lewes and Eliot
understood fictions capacity to explore what laboratory experiment could not even as they
realized that fiction should, in turn, exceed what science attempts to formulate (618-619). 7
However, reading Lewess work against George Eliots is necessary, biography aside, for the
very point that, as Peter Allan Dale notes, Lewes was probably the Victorians foremost
philosopher of science after Mill (One Culture 93).8
Lewess philosophy sought to reposition the labor of science in terms of epistemology
and ontology. That is, he attempted, variously, to build a model for conducting science that
spoke to the nature of being in terms of the limits of how it is that we can know anything about
ourselves. The epistemological proscribes the ontological in this model, but science is
nevertheless understood as the means by which an ontology is approached, and ultimately
supplants metaphysics as the privileged node for this inquiry. Thus, a certain amount of
renegotiation has to occur within the practice of science in order to achieve results. Literature, as
Menke and Dale have noted in readings of Lewess literary criticism, is a speculative partner to

Menkes further point is that the relationship between fiction and vivisection (which he explains for the Victorians
included a range of invasive or painful animal experiments [618]) is analogical (619). In other words, writing and
reading a book is predicated on observation of an organic thing; moreover, fiction is an appropriate object of study
that can yield the same treasure trove of novel realizations about human nature that scientific observation can yield.
8
Lest anyone suggest that this would indicate that George Eliots work would be better served by being read
through the work of Mill, it remains relatively clear that for all her familiarity with Mill, George Eliot was ultimately
not profoundly influenced by his thought (unless one traces it through Lewess own intellectual relationship with
Mill). Mill is a bugbear for Victorian literature, a kingpin of the period whose work, it is assumed, must have
influence the literature of the period directly. Edith Simcox, George Eliots devoted acolyte, upon George Eliots
death, went on a pilgrimage to George Eliots childhood home, and through the filter of grief, sought to develop a
closer intellectual understanding of George Eliots works. In doing so, she specifically seeks to understand the
influence of Mill on George Eliots work, only to find, in careful consideration and consultation with Cross, that
there is very little, if any, confluence in their work. Simcox concludes, however, that there is very little trace of
Mills thought in George Eliots works.

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science. Literature frames out experiments and hypotheses rooted in scientific knowledge.
Literature is not, however, science, tempered as it always is, by the refractions inherent in
representation. To this end, as Lewes notes in the closing volume of The Problems of Life and
Mind, psychology as a science cannot be built out of individual casesno science can be
founded on single specimens (96). But fiction can, and indeed most often is, built on the close
examination of individual cases. However, the circumstances examined by fiction-- human
conditions, actions, and choices-- paradoxically both engage and transcend scientific
proscriptions against the singular specimen. On the one hand, the psychology described within
texts (realist texts, at any rate) is singular. On the other hand, such a reduction to singularity is
flawed: there is a communion that occurs between the reader and the text, so that any act of
reading involves at least two participants, thereby compounding the seemingly-singular
internally-represented psychology. And although this compounded psychological field is still a
limited sample from which to draw conclusions about human nature and psychology, it still at
least trumps the common-sense admonition against taking the individual for the type or species:
in the act of reading there are always two consciousnesses at work. In Literature and Art there
are expressed the thoughts and feelings which I can interpret by my own, Lewes explains (98).
Jonah Leher naively echoes this claim about language: What makes a novel or poem immortal
is its innate complexity, the way every reader discovers in the same words a different story
(47)itself a rehearsal of Stanley Fishs reader-response theory. It is in this vein that Lewes
doggedly explains to us that Language exists only as a social function (Problems of Life and
Mind, Vol. 1, 115). And language, as a social function, is one of the mechanisms that distinguish
humans as more than just animals: Isolate man from the social state, and we have an animal
(Vol. 1, 143). Man is especially man precisely because he is social, and because social, is

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capable of developing faculties out of the raw material of instinctsand, moreover, ratifying his
social self through the interlocutor of language.9 It is precisely these developed faculties that
render us human, and as human, beholden to ethical imperatives to act humanely. Thus,
The animal has no sympathy, and is moved by sympathetic impulses, but these are never
altruistic; the ends are never remote. Moral life is based on sympathy: it is feeling for
others, working for others, aiding others, quite irrespective of any personal good beyond
the satisfaction of the social impulses. Enlightened by the intuition of our community of
weakness, we share ideally the universal sorrows. Suffering humanizes. Feeling the need
of mutual help, we are prompted by it to labor for others. The egoistic impulses are
directed towards objects simply so far as these are the means of satisfying a desire. The
altruistic impulses, on the contrary, have greater need of Intelligence to understand the
object itself in all its relations. Hence so much immorality is sheer stupidity. (153)10
Man is a social being; he is an animal, but he is also better than an animal, for It is true that
animals have no virtues; for Virtue is the suppression of our egoistic impulses to promote the
welfare of others; and animals are incapable of this conception (Vol. 3, 138).11 Underscoring
9

Lewes rather poetically states the case this way: The animal feels, thinks, and acts; but no animal spends his
unoccupied hours in framing theories, in devoting his energies to the discovery of what was the order of past events,
and will be the order of events to occur long after he has passed away. He does not watch the course of the stars, the
growth of societies, or record the deeds of his ancestors and companions (Vol. 2, 485).
10
The concept of human sympathy is explored at greater length and specificity in the following chapter, and also
explicitly in the two following chapters that explore sympathys application in the instruction of Esther Lyons and
Gwendolen Harleth.
11
The intersections between the philosophies that George Eliot translated often get muddy, intertwining in and
around common themes, making it difficult to specify which philosophy she, or Lewes, is ultimately invoking.
Because Lewes does (prematurely?) proclaim that For myself, I cannot accept Spinozas system not because it is
impossible or distastefulhe has nothing but respect for Spinoza and admits that he see[s] how it was perfectly
compatible with his own pure morality. Instead, Lewes claims to reject Spinozas system on the grounds that he
(Lewes) reject[s] all ontological schemas, and den[ies] the competence of the ontological method (Fortnightly
399). Even George Eliot was a little skeptical about Spinozas system, as she admits in her letters (and which is
explored at greater depth in the introduction to the dissertation), but nevertheless there is a way in which Spinoza
and Feuerbach collude in shaping George Eliots philosophical orientation. To this end, Lewess passage recalls an
early passage in George Eliots translation of Feuerbachs The Essence of Christianity:
But what is the essential difference between man and the brute? The most simple, general, and also the
most popular answer to this question isconsciousness:-- but consciousness in the strictest sense; for the

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this, and grounded firmly in the lives of humans, Lewes explains there cannot be moral
relations apart from Society, and Society is understood as a human condition (Vol. 1, 160).
All of this returns us to the consideration of language as an essentially social medium; if
man lived in isolation from all other men, there would be no need to communicate, and no need
to care for the other. But such isolation is a fictiona fiction most famously explored in Defoes
Robinson Crusoe, whose titular character can nevertheless not make shift without his Friday.
Language belongs essentially to the community by whom and for whom it is called into
existence. In like manner Thought belongs essentially to Humanity. As every spoken word
presupposes an intelligent hearer, so every conception implies an impersonal Reason
representing relations that are essentially impersonal. A solitary man would feel, and think, and
will; but he would no more fashion his feelings, thoughts, and volitions into conceptions which
are the formulas of his knowledge than he would articulate them into words (Vol. 3, 161). In
other words, a solitary man would have the animal impulses bestowed upon him by birth
feeling, thinking, willingbut these impulses could not evolve into knowledge. This man would
have, ultimately, no value without the mediation of language, and through language, the a priori
presence of other humans. This is to say that fiction is ultimately fodder for revelation and
discovery about the nature of human beings because it is a purposeful deployment of the social

consciousness implied in the feeling of a self as an individual, in discrimination by the senses, in the
perception and even judgment of outward things according to definite sensible signs, cannot be denied to
the brutes. Consciousness in the strictest sense is present only in a being to whom his species, his essential
nature, is an object of thought. The brute is indeed conscious of himself as an individualand he has
accordingly the feeling of self as the common centre of successive sensationsbut not as a species: hence,
he is without that consciousness which in its nature, as in its name, is akin to science. Science is the
cognizance of species. (Christianity1-2).
But one can see how easily Lewess and George Eliots Feuerbachianism is inflected by Spinozas immanence;
while Feuerbach insists that knowledge is gleaned, as it were, phenomenologically and dialectically, the recognitions
gleaned from such materialist encounters with the other presumes that the other is knowablegrounded, perhaps, in
an implicit endorsement of the unity-of-being that Spinoza encapsulates in immanence.

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medium out of which thought itself is constructed. Thus, literature, like psychology, is a means
to studying the intricacies of mans experience of himself.
Though the self can be studied by the self, the inherent failure of such a project is our
essential inability to cultivate an objective perspective on the activities, thoughts, and feelings of
the self. Egoistic navel-gazing certainly occurs, but as Lewes cautions us not to take a single
specimen as indicative of a species, we should know better than to imagine that our own
experiences are in any way unique or typical. Because we cannot, by definition, objectively
study ourselves, we depend on others, and especially on representations of others, to develop
knowledge of human thought and behavior. Every event, every feeling, has this twofold aspect,
is indissolubly objective and subjective, according to the mode of its apprehension (Vol. 3,
49).12 Everything is seen both subjectively and objectively: there is no escaping the
phenomenological oscillation between the self and the other; we believe that our thoughts come
and go, cross the mind, bewilder it, like moving objects: nay, we objectify the Mind itself, and
call it ours, as we call the body ours. The reason is that all feelings, emotions, thoughts are
connected with visible or tangible experiences, have an objective origin and locus (Vol. 2, 358).
Lewes explains himself by way of elaborating on the activity of sense: For what is a Sense? It is
an organ which indirectly tells of the outer world, as that outer world directly affects us through
it. We do not feel objects, we construct them out of feelings. Every sensation is a sign; and the

12

Once more, Feuerbach seems a useful and perhaps more explicit touchstone for Lewess thought. Feuerbach
argues that Man cannot get beyond his true nature. He may indeed by means of the imagination conceive
individuals of another so-called higher kind, but he can never get loose from his species, his nature; the conditions of
being, the positive final predicates which he gives to these other individuals, are always determinations or qualities
drawn from his own naturequalities in which he in truth only images and projects himself (Christianity 11).
Man is nothing without an object, Feuerbach phenomenologically insists; But the object to which a subject
essentially, necessarily relates, is nothing else than this subjects own, but objective, nature (4). This accords with
Spinozas condemnation of the imagination as a lesser form of knowledge, consisting as it does of a projection
destined to end only in inadequate knowledge of material reality; but Spinozas insistence on the subjectivity of
knowledgefor a man, after all, can only know of the world insofar as his body is affected by it (Ethics II.P23)
dovetails with Feuerbach here, and the two together inform Lewess budding natural philosophy of subjectivity.

94

sign alone is at first present in Consciousness though dragging with it oscillating obscurity into
the full energy of Consciousness, and then what is signified gradually emerges in Feeling (Vol.
2, 356). Lewes, like Spinoza, ultimately argues that there is no experience that is not the
experience of being affected; being affected supposes that there is a self and an other, even if that
other is, as it were, internal to the self. We can be affected, Spinoza remarks, by ideas that we
ourselves have generated, but because these ideas are material and part of the immanent
substance of Nature, they are nevertheless objects to us.
Spinoza, in Section II of the Ethics, entitled Of the Mind, relentlessly insists on the
ways in which humans cultivate knowledge. Though the section is entitled Of the Mind, most
of its postulates concern themselves with the body as the means by which humans come to know
the world. As he states in this section, the human can know nothing except by means of the
knowledge of its body; its body is an object to itself, and comes to be known vis--vis the ways it
is affected by other objects or bodies: The human mind does not know the human body itself,
nor does it know that it exists, except through ideas of affections by which the body is affected
(Ethics II P19). Likewise, The mind does not know itself, except insofar as it perceives the
ideas of the affections of the body (Ethics II P23). Thus, the human comes to know itself
through the bodyand the mind can only know itself through knowledge of its bodywhich in
turn is established perpetually by affecting and being affected; and the human can only know
itself insofar as it knows these affections. Thus all knowledge is established, as it were, as an
object that is registered by the body as a force that is acting by, on or against the bodyand thus
knowledge, even in ideational form, is presented to the human as an object that in turn, whatever
the nature of that knowledge, increases the humans knowledge of itself. 13

13

Feuerbach, in some ways, extends this materialist phenomenology by insisting on a more social form of it; he
argues for the social as the primary realm in which the subject comes to know itself, as a phenomenological

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Science is the means by which we can establish a truthful relationship with the world as it
is; as Lewes states at the outset of the first volume, Instead of proclaiming the nothingness of
this life, the worthlessness of human love, and the imbecility of the human mind, it [science] will
proclaim the supreme importance of this life, the supreme value of human love, and the grandeur
of human intellect (3). The blend of the subjective, for after all we can never escape the
subjective experiences of ourselves, and the objective, the likewise undeniable truth of the fact
that that which is outside of us is object to us, combine in the formulation of truth. But these
truths are fluid and flexible, prone to slippage, evolution, and error, in keeping with the fact that
the subjective will always color our ability to understand the world clearly. Lewes offers a
whimsical example of this in the first volume of Problems of Life and Mind: The world is to
each man as it affects him; to each a different world. Fifty spectators see fifty different rainbows
in the sky, and all believe they see the same rainbow (185). There is a paradox at work here:
nature is only intelligible because we believe that we are seeing the same rainbow, but the fact of
the matter is that each man sees ultimately a different rainbow.14 It is this paradox, and the tacit
admission it makesthat the subjective inescapably colors perception, allows for the inevitable
development of knowledge that is always eminently subjective. George Eliots narrator in
Middlemarch crafts a hypothetical image that shores up these concerns over the inescapable
influence of the subjective in scientific observation and experimentation. In watching effects, if
encounter between I and Thousomething later picked up to a different effect by the twentieth-century German
thinker Martin Buber. Man is nothing without an object (Christianity 4) and Consciousness is self-verification,
self-affirmation, self-love, joy in ones own perfection (6), Feuerbach remarks. But this object is also internal to the
self, for Man is himself at once I and Thou (2).
14
One cant help but be tempted to read this as an early rebuttal to the deconstructionists, or Derrida, in particular
for his formulation of differance. While it strikes the twenty-first-century reader as almost a truism that language
morphs, shifts, changes, and eludes us through any deployment of it, to say nothing of its transmission over time (a
fact that historicists, with their attention to historical constructions and contexts have so aptly demonstrated), we
nevertheless use language because we can be reasonably sure it is effective at communicating. Thus, the rainbow we
see may, on one level (that of the objective-subjective position of the spectator) be a different rainbow altogether,
there is nevertheless consensus among those viewers that the rainbow in question is the same rainbow. Thus it is
with language, as grammarians have so casually insisted.

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only of an electric battery, it is often necessary to change our place and examine a particular
mixture or group at some distance from the point where the movement we are interested in was
set up (434).15 In this particular image, she explains the need of perspective, and the inherent
necessity of perspectives multiplication. Looking at an experiment with one end in mindor
attempting to gather a full picture from a single observationis a faulty mode of scientific
seeing. Instead, we must be able to move around the experiment, see it from all angles, isolate
and identify particular areas of interest, and flex our understanding around the fuller picture that
such seeing entails. This has rather far-reaching implications for the subjective nature of
factuality and truth: Lewes insists, the feelings and thoughts of others must be accessible to us,
otherwise there could be no science of Feeling, nor any communication from others to ourselves
of what they feel or think. It is true that your subjective state can only be an objective fact to me,
except in so far as I am able to interpret the objective fact in its subjective aspect. But this is true
of all facts. I express my feelings and thoughts in actions, gestures, and words (Vol. 3, 69).16
Realistic literature thus becomes the mode in which actions, gestures, and words coalesce into a
description of the human as a social being, and George Eliots scientific invocations in
Middlemarch, filtered through the consciousness of an astute human narrator, translate the
epistemological labor of science into the language of literature.
Anna Theresa Kitchel, performing a close reading of Lewess articles on Spinoza, argues
that this skepticism of the absolute nature of truth is inherited from Spinoza. Indeed, Kitchel

15

This image of the electric battery experiment, with its call to the reader to be able to see a variety of viewpoints
variously in order to come to a more conclusive and accurate response, is then prey to the narrators typical
figurative gesture. She follows up this image with The group I am moving towards is at Caleb Garths breakfasttable in the large parlour where the maps and desk were: father, mother, and five of the children (434). The narrator
makes explicit what the comparison is, seemingly abandoning the intentional ambiguity of such figurative language.
This self-clarifying move is repeated throughout the novel in almost all of her totalizing or authoritative metaphors,
especially those that are concerned with science or nature.
16
For a further exploration of this problematic, see my article in Mediations (Volume 25, Number 2; Winter, 2011),
the journal of the Marxist Literary Group.

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perceptively recognizes that Spinoza relentlessly and sagely insists on the dogged persistence of
confused ideas generated out of the fog generated by self-interest and self-delusion; facts are
buffeted and warped by our own conception of our interests (49). Lewes picks up on this very
language of self-interest in his acknowledgement that any endeavor to understand or to learn is
shaped by the forces of interest: We only see what interests us. No phenomenon is interesting
until it is illuminated by emotion, and we see, or foresee, its connection with our feelings (Vol.
3, 42).17 Lewes here is also borrowing on Spinozas insistence that our being-in-the-world is
constituted by our ability to act and be acted upon, to affect and be affected. Lewess
indebtedness to Spinozas language of affectus, or affect, is carried throughout his scientific
works in the figure of feeling. Feeling so predominates in The Problems of Life and Mind that
it would merit its own study, but it is nevertheless fair to argue that feeling derives, at least in
part, from Spinoza. Lewes insists on a materialism that is heavily grounded in the affectus:
Conceived subjectively, the real is what is either felt or perceived; the ideal is what is either
imagedthat is to say, the feeling reproduced in the absence of its external objector
conceived, i. e. the feeling represented in a symbol. The real is what is actually given in Feeling.
The ideal is what is virtually given, when Inference anticipates what would be Feeling, were the
objective causes in direct relation with Sense. Thus the direct experience of the one is
supplemented by the indirect experience of the other: vision is completed by prevision: real
observation by ideal construction (Vol. 1, 92). Likewise, following the proof of all of the
operations of the mind as variations of feeling, Lewes states categorically and with emphasis: If
sensations, perceptions, emotions, sentiments, volitions, and ideations have all in turn been
recognized as feelings, there is good reason to suspect that Feeling is a generalized expression of
17

American neuro-psychologist Silvan Tomkins, whose works were resuscitated by the modern theorist Eve
Sedgwick, also privileges interest as the gateway affect; without first experiencing and expressing interest, the
human, he theorizes, cannot experience any positive affects.

98

what all mental states have in common (Vol. 2, 8). Lewes puts a spin on Spinozas materialism,
winding it carefully through the Cartesian dualism that, after Leibniz and others soiled Spinozas
reputation, persisted in Western philosophy: But while thinking is really a Mode of Sentience, a
particular form of the general activity named Feeling, common usage has decided that Thinking
should be the antithesis to Feeling. This usage we must respectThoughts as products are
readily distinguishable from sensations or emotions as products, although the laws of grouping
which are manifest in the one are equally manifest in the other. Thoughts differ from sensations
as signs from the things signified; but the processes by which they are combined are of the same
nature, whether the products be sensations or perceptions, perceptions or conceptions (Vol. 2,
10). In Spinoza, ideas and affects are but two modes of immanent substance, and are material,
affects are but extensions of ideas, even as they can be distorted or modified by passions. In
Lewes, they are still deeply intercalated, although he is ready to grant their differentiation, but
only on the grounds that they have been historically treated this way, and that differentiation
ultimately exists on the same level as language, signs and symbols, and is ultimately a cover for
the fact that they are composed of the same material. As Levine acknowledges succinctly,
George Eliot and Lewes saw knowledge and feeling not as two distinct things but,
psychologically and even biologically speaking, the same thing. Knowledge, for both, was a
form of feeling (Realism, Ethics and Secularism 15).
Accordingly, in Middlemarch, one of the narrators most famous images invokes the
science of optics, and which more directly and clearly elucidates the parallels between Lewess
own scientific conclusions about the nature of epistemology and Spinozas conclusions about the
unstable nature of truth.

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An eminent philosopher among my friendshas shown me this pregnant little fact. Your
pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will
be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a
lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange
themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable
that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which
produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an
exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the
candle is the egoism of any person now absent (297; emphasis added)
Taking cues from Spinozas lifelong labor, optics, George Eliots narrator crafts an incredibly
dense figure that speaks to a number of dynamics present in her novel. The first layer is that
which is so baldly revealed by the narrator herselfthat the pier glass is but a metaphor for our
egoism; the passage goes on to directly implicate Rosamond. In this way, the figure speaks to the
need for sympathy examined in the subsequent chapterthe call for the supersession of the self
in the ability to radically pry oneself open to innumerable candles, or perspectives, or senses of
self. The metaphor requires the reader to realize that any candle, held by anyone, will achieve the
same effect, that of egoisms imagination that the self is the center of the world. But this
metaphor uncovers even more Spinozist and scientific implicationsit points out the fact that
any such surface, while reflecting the sense of self held out in the candle, contains an infinite
number of positions and perspectives. The scratches, which appear to be arranged in a given
order when illuminated by flame, are not, in fact, oriented in such a way. But the inescapable
subjective self, that which must exist in order for such a phenomenon to be recorded, requires a
subject. The knowledge that one can glean through looking at any of these reflective surfaces is

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amorphously infinite, but reflective always of ourselveseven as it reveals the inherent flaws of
the metaphorical surface of the subject. We cannot, the narrator pleads, ever escape the self. This
is the parable: nothing can be known objectively; nothing can be known accurately, that is,
without understanding the role and position of the self. Without a self, the surface doesnt
signify. The sort of knowledge we can have of the entirety of the world reflected in the pier-glass
is always limited by what the eyethe candle-- is capable of illuminating at any given time; in
spite of our best effort, we cannot know the whole in its fullest truth. George Eliots narrator
cements this particular image of the pier-glass in scientific and intellectual termselevating it
above the level of mere commentary on egoismwhen Lydgate speaks of the necessity of the
systole and diastole in all inquiry: a mans mind must be continually expanding and shrinking
between the whole human horizon and the horizon of the object-glass (690). There must be
something like a phenomenological oscillation between intense, honest subjectivity and detached
objectivity in order to make sense of the totality of Nature.18
This sort of metaphor abets Lewess agitation for the development of a science of
psychology, and in rigorously grounding the study of psychology in the established field of
biology and physiology, Lewes is making a claim for something like an understanding of the
intercalation of all organic processes. Psychology requires physiology, which requires biology,
which in turn is illuminated by physics, by chemistry, by cosmology; psychology, as the study of
the study of consciousness, is the science that will provide, in Lewess estimation, our best
18

Neil Hertz, in George Eliots Pulse, seizes on the image of the systole/diastole image as confirmation of what
Miller claims is the deconstructive impulse in George Eliots narratives. He takes it upon himself in the text, to
clarify Millers position, which he finds persuasive, though too rapidly made to see the mechanics of the analysis.
However, it is Millers desire to assert that Middlemarch [is] simultaneously affirming the values of Victorian
humanism that it has been traditionally held to affirmfor example, a belief in the consistence of the self as a moral
agentand systematically undercutting those values, offering in place of an ethically stable notion of the self the
somewhat less reassuring figure of a focus of semiotic energy, receiving and interpreting signs, itself a cluster of
signs more or less legible (22-23). This self, Hertz argues, is a fiction in and of itself, a useful deconstructionist
remainder. But for the purposes of an analysis of Victorian literature, it strikes me as useful to preserve the notion of
the self, even as the literature might be striving to destabilize it.

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understanding of ourselves. Psychology, though, is no more than the scientific application of the
project of philosophywhich has, for Lewes, too long struggled through the abstractions of the
metaphysical night, retreating into vagaries and immaterialities. Jack Kaminsky notes that Lewes
deserves recognition for the development of the first materialist metaphysics in the development
of philosophy.19 Lewes says himself that Many have thought, and some few have proclaimed,
that Metaphysics should be based on facts, and its problems resolved on the principles of
Experience. But no oneto my knowledgehas explicitly stated how this was to be effected,
implicitly arguing that his work on physiology is intended to precisely that (Problems, Vol. 1,
76).
Philosophy, then, is the field that can adequately incorporate all of these nested
disciplines. Cosmology terminates in Biology, and Biology in turn terminates in Sociology.
Philosophy has thus all the materials for the conception of the World, Man, and Society (Vol. 3,
43). Of course, philosophy here is a slippery gloss on the practice of science but, as Peter Dear
notes, most science up to and including the nineteenth-century conceived of itself as the practice
of natural philosophy. Natural philosophy as a mode was intended to reveal the workings of

19

Jack Kaminsky makes the case that Lewess contribution to the development of philosophy has long been
overlookedperhaps symptomatic of his generic breadth. According to Kaminsky, Lewess sensitive handling of
the concept of matter means that matter is not some unknown substratum for Lewes but that it is rather about
objective experience; as such, the more we learn about such experience, the more we will know about matter.
And we learn about matter by learning about the properties science has found in it (329). In some ways, this is akin
to the development of scientific socialism in the field of political economy, and could be reasonably likened to
Engelss own push toward a more rigorously defined materialism in his later words (one thinks of his Anti-Duhring,
for instance). The problem with metaphysics for Lewes is that it has too long quarreled with the philosophers
paradox that a description of thing is not the thing itself; Lewes urges his students to accept that the experience of
the thing is tantamount to the thing itself, following on the heels of the sensuous perception that Feuerbach urges as
the groundwork for the subjects rootedness in the world. And accepting this experience as the thing means that we
also simultaneously have to be rigorous about exploring the manifold possibilities that are inherent in shifting
perspectives on the thing, and the labor of the philosopher is to investigate precisely what possibilities could be
inferred from the data given in the present (331). This recalls Spinozas own humble admission that, at the moment
of the composition of the Ethics, no one has yet determined what the body can do, that is, experience has not yet
taught anyone what the body can do from the laws of Nature alone (Ethics, III.P2s). All of this abets Zadie Smiths
claim that George Eliot has replaced metaphysics with human relationships, a development in philosophy that she
credits directly to George Eliots Spinozism (39).

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the natural world; natural philosophy developed in counterpoint to the instrumentalist view of
science, which argued that science should be a means to an end.20 Dear argues that Science in
its broad umbrella sense is an amalgam of natural philosophy and instrumentality and the two
elements are inextricable (6). Even such heavyweights as Newton, for all of the mathematical
precision he brought to bear on the study of the phenomena of optics and gravity, nevertheless
retreated into generalities thought more suited to the parameters of philosophy (36). Dear,
arguing for the preservation of natural philosophy in the conceptual composition of science,
claims that Presumed intelligibility is an essential ingredient of natural philosophy, and in that
sense natural philosophy is, and always has been, about feeling at home in the world (14).
Likewise, Spinozas writings, especially in the Ethics, can be appropriately contextualized as
natural philosophy or as rudimentary science, as much as they may be considered a node in the
evolution of Western philosophy.21
The insistence on materiality, observation, perspective, data that crops up in Lewess
scientific writings is a proof of his understanding of the synthesis of philosophy and science

20

Dear curiously associates the instrumentalist discourse of science with the British scientists of the nineteenth
century, like Faraday and Watt, who sought to understand the natural world in order to harness the powers it
contained. The instrumentalist view of science is still the primary focus in contemporary debates about the value of
science; one only has to consider the twenty-first-century American context. Faced with the prospect that American
schoolchildren are woefully under-educated in scientific areas, and unlikely to pursue the sciences as a field of
advanced study, there are renewed efforts to encourage math and science education. The rhetoric of this push is most
frequently associated with the tangible and pragmatic results that such study can yield: a cure for cancer, say, or new
technological gadgets. On the other hand, NASA has never before been so hard-pressed to make an argument for the
value of its labor, which, as Dear even notes, too infrequently yields material advancements in pragmatic
technologies. Lewes has this to remark upon the naysayers to the value of scientific speculation and theorization in
his Studies of Animal Life: Many men, and those not always the ignorant, whose scorn of what they do not
understand is always ready, despise the labours which do not obviously and directly tend to moral or political
achievement (39). Dripping with scorn, this passage ratifies his earlier insistence on the intrinsic value of scientific
study.
21
Spinozas deep interest and engagement with scientific questions is revealed both by biographyhe was a lens
grinder and interested in developments in opticsand by his letters, which reveal that he was in communication
with the scientist Robert Boyle on the properties of nitre and conversant with the Dutch astronomer Christiaan
Huygenss discovery of Saturns rings.

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under the rubric of the practice of natural philosophy. Lewes rhapsodizes in a free-form
passage at the end of his Seaside Studies:
The naturalist may be anything, everything. He may yield to the charm of simple
observation; he may study the habits and habitats of animals, and moralise on their ways;
he may use them as starting-points of laborious research; he may carry his newlyobserved facts into the highest region of speculation; and whether roaming amid the
lovely nooks of Nature in quest of varied specimens, or fleeting the quiet hour in
observation of his petswhether he make Natural History an amusement, or both
amusement and serious workit will always offer him exquisite delight. From the
schoolboy to the philosopher, all grades find in it something admirably suited to their
minds. It brings us into closer presence of the great mysteries of life; and while
quickening our sense of the infinite marvels which surround the simplest object, teaches
us many and pregnant lessons which may help us through our daily needs. (396)
The pursuit of material knowledge, with the help of observation and studyassisted or
unassisted, serious or casualcan only lead from the humble revelation of fact to the speculative
heights of philosophy. After all, one such outcome of the naturalists work is to moralise on
the ways of the animal. Anyone is capable of doing this work, and no one should mistake that it
is confined to the realms of serious or cloistered intellectual pursuit, but that it is rather an
activity that engenders further knowledge of the great mysteries of life encoded within the
simplest object. One does not have to go far to find a proper object of study, either: one need
only to fleet the quiet hour in observation of his pet.22 Lewes fondly rebukes Blackwood in a

22

This has both charming and serious reverberations in the letters of Lewes and George Eliot, both of whom
endlessly remark upon the charms and quirks of their pug, Pug. George Eliots own novelistic descriptions of
dogsone thinks of Gyp and Vixen particularly in Adam Bede, reveals an affinity with this domestic version of

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letter, on the unplumbed treasure that a house full of dogs could yield for the scientificallyminded observer: Your picture of the daily life is suggestive of pleasant hours; but I see you
dont turn the dogs to account. Four dogs! my dear fellow, how can four dogs be without
attraction? I would rather hear Mrs. Blackwoods opinion on the point, not believing your ability
to edit a dog. Perhaps the dull dogs have wearied you with too many contributions to make you
appreciate justly the genus dog (GEL VIII 240). Lewes, jesting to an extent, nevertheless
gleefully imagines the philosophical opportunities afforded by a house full of animals. Lewes
rejoices in the endless benefits of living with Pug: When you have seen Pug your mind will be
more expanded, your sensibilities heightened (GEL VIII 240). The ability to observe an animal
has the effect of enlarging mans knowledge and sympathy, his sensibilities. The labor of the
scientist is that which raises his intellectual capability, and his capacity to feel. The experience of
living with animalswhich facilitates the casual work of the natural sciences-- has the effect of
encouraging the development of mans higher ethical capacity.
Observation and scientific thought stimulated, for Lewes, his higher philosophical and
ethical capabilities. Lewes trumpets the delight he experiences working with and observing
animals in his laboratory: Antaeus it is said recovered his lost vigour whenever he touched the
earth. I seem to have recovered some of mine on handling my old friends the frogsI was at

natural philosophy. In a letter to Blackwood, her publisher, who secured Pug for her as a bonus for the success of
Adam Bede, George Eliot charmingly remarks at length upon the habits of her pet:
Pug develops new charms every day. I think, in the pre-historic period of his existence, before he came to
me, he had led a sort of Caspar Hauser life, shut up in a kennel in Bethnal Green, and he has had to get over
much astonishment at the sight of cows and other rural objects on a large scale, which he marches up to and
surveys with the gravity of [our] own correspondent whose business it is to observe. He has absolutely no
barkbut en revanche, he sneezes powerfully and has speaking eyes, so the media of communication are
abundant. He sneezes at the world in general, and he looks affectionately at me. (GEL III 133)
The depth of George Eliots observation extends to speculation about his former lifeand captures in detail how
Pugs personality has developed out of that construed narrative. George Eliot, during the writing of Daniel Deronda,
assiduously read and notated Darwins The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Beer 223). Darwins
conclusionsthat affective expression is an adaptive characteristic in animals, taken to new expressive and socially
useful heights in manare prefigured by George Eliots attribution of gravity to Pug, and her remark that his
emotional range is conveyed in abundant media.

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work in Cambridge laboratory last week, and now I can write of a morning! (GEL VI 189).
Scientific study can be a pleasure unto itself, but it also affords Lewes, and we can infer from
George Eliots own remarks about living with Pug, the ability to write, to become social, to
fulfill the minor ethical duties, in his case, of answering letters. Scientific observation is ethical,
not just regarding the self, but towards the other that is being observed.23 Indeed, without
recourse to scientific study, Lewes feels himself stagnating, too embroiled in quotidian and petty
human concerns; in one letter, he bemoans My microscope gathers the dust of disuse, and that
his frogs mutely reproach [him] for neglect (GEL III 10-11). The inability to engage in his
scientific studywhich can be glossed, more generally, as observation, means an atrophy of
sorts, a torpor. The further he gets from his study, the further he feels himself from touching
truth, that ideal fruit of reason, cultivated and developed out of observation and study.
For, as Lewes goes on to say, All the forms and facts of Nature carry with them a deep
spiritual significance, and cannot be reverently studied without revealing it; for are they not the
manifestations of the Universal Life? (397). This intersection of science and philosophy
moreover takes on a religious connotation in its evocative phrasing, becoming akin to prayer in
its revelation of the many and pregnant lessons which may help us through our daily needs and
in the understanding of the manifestations of the Universal Life, which glosses as a secular
God. In the latter, although the phrase Universal Life is found nowhere in Spinoza, one hears
23

In spite of the fact that Lewes engaged heavily in the practice of vivisectionsomething that Menke remarks on
at length in his article about Lewess scientific practices as they inform his literary criticismLewes clearly feels a
certain fondness for his subjects. While the practice of vivisection, especially as Lewes practiced it (attaching
electrical impulses to living frogs, grafting the muscles of one frog onto the leg of another), may appear gruesome
and to affirm the chauvinism that places man at the center of the natural world, it is not clear that Lewes espouses
this. Lewes, for instance, absolutely delights in the company of animals; in one letter, he recalls a trip to the zoo that
he took with George Eliot, the Zoo gardens where there are two puppy bearssuch loves! I had one out of the cage
and let him suck and bite my thumb, like a pup; but the old lady was nervous and I was forced to desist (GEL IV
36). Lewes has a very real fondness for animals, one that counterbalances any supposed cruelty inflicted upon them
by his study. Menke is careful to note that Lewes, though he supported vivisection, did not encourage the practice of
it by untrained enthusiasts, admitting the potential for exploitation existed, and that unstudied vivisection was little
more than sadism.

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echoes of the famous phrase natura naturata, which aides George Eliot in her translation of
deus sive natura as God (or Nature). Lewes is speaking of an immanence that is everywhere
present, which pervades and interpenetrates all life. Indeed, it is this higher purpose that should
drive science as well as philosophy: the study of anatomical details, that labor which so
determines his work from Seaside Studies and Studies of Animal Life (with their Victorian
etchings of internal organs and physical forms) to Physiology of Common Life, concerned as it is
with the basic activities of daily life, from respiration to digestion, under their lowest aspect
they have still the inalienable value attendant upon all truth; and under their highest aspect they
teach us something of a noble wisdom which profoundly affects the practical affairs of life, by
affecting the direction and the temper of our thoughts (397). The lofty search for truth in fact
motivates, for instance, his research on the effect of a rabbit inhaling coal dust, as appears in his
Studies of Animal Life.
Invoking the developing Victorian discourse of self-help, Lewes encourages his readers
to the labor of science because of its cultivation of mental faculties (the faculties of man are of
great interest to Lewes in Problems of Life and Mind, and are a compound of sensuous activity,
intellectual capability, and social development). The one reason why, of all sciences, Biology is
pre-eminent as a means of culture is, that owing to the great complexity of all the cases it
investigates, it familiarizes the mind with the necessity of attending to all the conditions, and it
thus keeps the mind alert. It cultivates caution, which, considering the tendency there is in men
to anticipate Nature, is a mental tonic of inestimable worth (Studies of Animal Life 95-96).24

24

This is another curious echo of Spinoza, whose motto was Caute, or Caution. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
remarks at length on the fact that the signet ring Spinoza wore all his life was inscribed with the word caute, Latin
for cautiously, and it was engraved with the image of a thorny rose, so that he signed his name sub rosa (9).
Caute may mean cautiously but may also mean caution, alternately a description of praxis (moving forward
through philosophical thickets cautiously) or as a warning (as on a pharoahs tomb!) advising readers to proceed
with caution.

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Observation of material reality, and from it the construal of truth and fact, lead to a proper
knowledge of the world, and is ultimately a tool of culture as much as of sciences
instrumentality or purposiveness. This rationalism is set against any attempt to retrench behind a
theological explanation of the natural worldprevalent in the evolution debates of the nineteenth
century, and plaguing, curiously, reception of evolutionary theory to this day: The one reason
why the study of Science is valuable as a means of culture, over and above its own immediate
objects, is that in it the mind learns to submit to realities, instead of thrusting its figments in the
place of realitiesendeavors to ascertain accurately what the order of Nature is, and not what it
ought to be, or might be (95). The study of the natural world should aspire to reveal its
immanent design and structure, not point to the imposition of anothers design, or the desires or
volition of a deity.25 This immanence is, at least in a Darwinian formulation of the problem, not
beholden to design or will, but rather to chance, and to the interplay of necessity and chance.26
Science, inasmuch as it is a philosophical discipline, is the means by which we come to
know how the universe in the most general, though material and not abstract, invocation of
such a wordis. This, at least in the scholastic and philosophical experience, training and
inclinations of Lewes, George Eliot and their intellectual circle, is indebted to Spinozas
25

Gillian Beer speaks at length about the teleological thrust of much pre-Darwinian and anti-Darwinian science. As
she notes, in Darwin, At the centre of such uneasiness was the problem of teleology and its relation to materialism.
Is there an ultimate or precedent design in the universe and hence in our experience? Or, in an alternative
formulation, do we live in a universe where natural objects generate their own laws? Natural selection and
adaptation suggested that there could be no precedent design, since conformity of need between organism and
medium was the result of chance congress (43). This, Beer notes, causes a particular problem for Victorian thinkers
and novelists, who will come to eschew the form of the novel that relies on the revelation of Providence (45); she
uses Dickenss own formal maturation from the picaresque form deployed in The Pickwick Papers (and so highly
developed in his predecessors Smollett and Fielding) to the dense interconnected realism of Bleak House (47). The
interpenetration of science and culture is nowhere more admirably demonstrated than in Beers and George Levines
work on the overlapping cultural milieu of nineteenth-century science and literature.
26
Lewes insists upon the facticity of the present as revealed through observation, something echoed by George Eliot
in her famous chapter on realism in Adam Bede (quoted at length in the introduction) when she lauds Dutch painting
for its painstaking and detailed depiction of everyday life. It is only through the observation of these things as they
really are, and not as we would hope them to be (figured in Adam Bede as those impossible Madonnas, coupled
with the admonition that the world is not just what we like [AB 194]) that we can come to a greater, intuitive
understanding of the world around us, with all of its philosophical implications.

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metaphysics. Spinozas concept of immanencethe foundation of his Ethics, and the bulk of his
developed philosophybecomes a cornerstone for understanding and framing this quasiVictorian belief in organic monism.
Sally Shuttleworth makes the compelling claim in the early and influential George Eliot
and 19th Century Science that George Eliot, along with the other Victorian intellectuals of the
period, replaced the atomistic social ideas of the eighteenth century with images of organic
interdependence, ultimately pointing toward a vision of society that is part of a totality, a
unified whole (x). Shuttleworth is commenting on the way that culture, as a larger holistic
rubric for understanding the human, has come to incorporate socio-political theories of
organization, philosophical movements like utilitarianism (in its formulation of the the many)
and materialism (in Marxs appropriation of its collating tendencies, and the formulation of the
class27), and scientific theories that increasingly theorized interdependence and intercalation
(most famously, in Darwins biological theories). Science was, for the first time, conceived of as
the best way to come to a clear understanding of these interdependencies, promising as it did, the
reprieve and clarity of objective proof and demonstration. Novelists, writers, and artists, came
to adopt this discourse as a means of, at least illusorily, transcending the obviously subjective
limitations of the novel as a form.
In an era of the amateur scientistas Diana Postlethwaite notes, the word scientist was
really only coined in common usage in the early nineteenth centurythe intellectual availability
of text can be read as equivalent to the presence and availability of the natural world.28
27

Engels demonstrates in his late work on scientific socialism, which thereafter informed developments in Russian
Marxism, that scientific epistemologies were crucial to the work of historical materialism.
28
The genealogy that Postlethwaite presents is surprising and productive: The British Association for the
Advancement of Science was formed in 1831; William Whewell coined the word scientist in 1840. The quotation
the OED offers to illustrate this new, Victorian, definition is dated surprisingly late1867: We shall use the word
Science in the sense which Englishmen so commonly give to us; as expressing physical and experimental
sciences, to the exclusion of theology or metaphysics (99). This definition of science self-consciously distances

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According to Postlethwaite, the eighteenth-century definition of science as a mode of study that


rested on observation, classification and systematization was augmented in the nineteenth
century with the dimension that science was, effectively, something that was done (98-99). So
we see in the nineteenth century that science continued to embrace the role of natural philosophy,
but also saw for itself a utility, generating knowledge through activity. In the absence of rigorous
disciplinarity, this meant that the activity of science was available to anyone who was willing to
do it (or, in all fairness to classist readings of the Victorian bourgeoisie, who had the leisure time
to do it).29 Lewes in his Studies of Animal Life opens with the following rhapsodic enticement to
the doing of science:
Come with me, and lovingly study Nature, as she breathes, palpitates, and works under
myriad forms of Lifeforms unseen, unsuspected, or unheeded by the mass of ordinary
men. Our course may be through park and meadow, garden and lane, over the swelling
hills and spacious heaths, beside the running and sequestered streams, along the tawny
itself from the theologically-tinged investigations of the natural world, dominated in biology by Linnaean
classification that sought to explain a Natural classification [that] simply meant an organization of types that would
correspond to Gods plan (Dear 48). Likewise, it skeptically contextualizes the work of William Paley, whose
Natural Theology sought to explain the beneficence and foresight of God in his creation of the animals. In its
introduction into common parlance, science is intended to explain the more rigorous and empiricist foundation of
science that relies on observation and explanation.
29
Gabriel Betteredges narrative in The Moonstone offers a humorous gloss on the leisurely intellectual pursuits of
the upper classes, complaining
Their lives being, for the most part, passed in looking about them for something to do, it is curious to see -especially when their tastes are of what is called the intellectual sort -- how often they drift blindfold into
some nasty pursuit. Nine times out of ten they take to torturing something, or to spoiling something -- and
they firmly believe they are improving their minds, when the plain truth is, they are only making a mess in
the house. I have seen them (ladies, I am sorry to say, as well as gentlemen) go out, day after day, for
example, with empty pill-boxes, and come home and stick pins through the miserable wretches, or cut them
up, without a pang of remorse, into little pieces. You see my young master, or my young mistress, poring
over one of their spiders' insides with a magnifying-glass; or you meet one of their frogs walking
downstairs without his head -- and when you wonder what this cruel nastiness means, you are told that it
means a taste in my young master or my young mistress for natural history. Sometimes, again, you see
them occupied for hours together in spoiling a pretty flower with pointed instruments, out of a stupid
curiosity to know what the flower is made of. Is its colour any prettier, or its scent any sweeter, when you
DO know? But there! the poor souls must get through the time, you see -- they must get through the time.
You dabbled in nasty mud, and made pies, when you were a child; and you dabble in nasty science, and
dissect spiders, and spoil flowers, when you grow up. In the one case and in the other, the secret of it is,
that you have got nothing to think of in your poor empty head, and nothing to do with your poor idle hands.
(Moonstone 74)

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coast, out on the dark and dangerous reefs, or under dripping caves and slippery ledges. It
matters little where we go: everywherein the air above, the earth beneath, and waters
under the earthwe are surrounded with Life. Avert the eyes awhile from our human
world, with its ceaseless anxieties, its noble sorrow, poignant, yet sublime, of conscious
imperfection aspiring to higher states, and contemplate the calmer activities of that other
world with which we are so mysteriously related. (1-2)
This passage contains a number of assumptions that Lewes makes about the nature of science
and the nature of Nature. For one thingNature pervades. Adapted from the Spinozist
conception that all is fundamentally a mode of a singular substance, God (or Nature), there is
life: in the air above, the earth beneath, and waters under the earth. Likewise, one does not
have to stray far from ones own experience of the earth to find it; it can be found in such
familiar and domestic spaces as parks and gardens. Rhetorically, this passage is powerful in its
entreaty to cast off the shackles on our unintentional ignorance and become aware of its presence
so usually unheeded by the mass of ordinary men. No reader wants to be an ordinary man
when it becomes clear that such ignorance is keeping us from a feeling of union with
breath[ing], palpitat[ing] Nature. Moreover, this invitationin Lewess best, most familiar
styleopens up the whole scope of the natural world to the observation of the willing
participant, as refuge from the ceaseless anxieties of our subjective, human experience of life.
Science is the paradigmatic leisure activity at the same time as it is relentlessly informing. It does
not rule out, as his later work on the nature of the human mind and its physiological origins
endlessly argues, that man is ultimately and intimately part of this world that is otherwise
available to our objective observation. All that we need is the willingness not to be ignorant, and
the desire to see the world for what it truly is. That, and a microscope, as Lewes further implores:

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As a beginning, get a microscope. If you cannot borrow, boldly buy one. Few purchases
will yield you so much pleasure; and while you are about it, do, if possible, get a good
one. Spend as little money as you can on accessory apparatus and expensive fittings, but
get a good stand and good glasses. Having got your instrument, bear in mind these two
important trifleswork by daylight, seldom or never by lamplight; and keep the
unoccupied eye open. With these precautions you may work daily for hours without
serious fatigue to the eye. (Studies in Animal Life 8)30
Pleasure is the operative word in the study of the natural world. Revelations about Nature yield,
in turn, revelations about mans immanence in Nature; the pursuit of a knowledge of Nature is
ultimately a pursuit of knowledge of the self. Likewise, the leap being made here is between the
micro-organic and the macro-organic: If it pains you to relinquish the piquant notion of a
microscopic animalcule having a structure equal in complexity to that of the elephant, there will
be ample compensation in the notion which replaces itthe notion of an ascending complexity
of animal organisms, rising from the structureless amoeba to the complex frame of a mammal
(18). All organic things are linked in ascending complexity, and there is no essential difference
in the quality of knowledge one gleans from the study of minute forms from the study of larger,
more seemingly complex organisms.
Mrs. Cadwallader seems to have taken Lewess exhortations seriously; armed with a
microscope, she turns her keen natural-scientific mind on the inhabitants of Middlemarch. She is
a budding scientist, whose observations of the social lives around her reflect a casual but broad
30

Any persistent charges of the exclusivity of the activity of science (as in The Moonstone, above) are at least partly
assuaged by the accommodations Lewes makes in this passage. Though science still requires a modicum of leisure
time for its doing, the amateur scientist should not be afraid of the expense of the apparatus: he is, after all,
encouraged first to borrow the apparatus from a neighbor. The Victorian amateur scientist, however, if we are to
believe the novels of the era, is not hampered by the demands of work or money. One has only to think of Gaskells
Job Legh to find an example a working-class scientist who makes the most of his leisure time for his zoological
hobbies, or, indeed, to Farebrother in Middlemarch who cultivates assiduously his entomological and botanical
collections in his spare time.

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knowledge of the doings of science. Mrs. Cadwallader is the imperturbably assiduous observer in
Middlemarch: little escapes her keen eye and her commentary. She acts as a sharp-tongued
seeing eye on the ground, moving amidst the personages of the novel, hefting her personal aims
and opinions, marshaling the characters into contrived corners and decisions. Like Mrs. Poyser,
whose witticisms in Adam Bede reveal George Eliots talent for witticismsto the point at
which many readers and critics accused her of cribbing provincial aphorisms, though of course
all of Mrs. Poysers wisdom is her ownMrs. Cadwallader has a particular mode of speech.
Mrs. Cadwallader speaks largely in allusions to science, drawing parallels between the
appearances and behaviors of her characters and the workings of the natural world. In doing so,
Mrs. Cadwallader is a stand-in for the amateur scientist in a text wherein the position of
naturalist and physician are already taken (by Reverend Farebrother and Lydgate, respectively).
She is the enthusiast courted by Lewes in his scientific writing, but also a cautionary tale of sorts:
unlike Farebrother, for instance, Mrs. Cadwallader adheres to no discernible discipline, does not
abide by a curriculum in pursuit of scientific depth. Instead, she applies glimpses and glimmers
of scientific knowledge in acutely pointed, imagistic characterizations.
Important as a vector of information in Middlemarch, and as a governor to the otherwise
unwise or passionate decisions of Mr. Brooke and Dorothea, Mrs. Cadwallader peppers her
conversations with frequent references to the natural world. When Dorothea, Celia and Mrs.
Cadwallader are observing the funeral of Featherstonethe crucial point at which the two main
narrative threads of the novel entwineMrs. Cadwallader explains the unknown objects of her
observation: I am fond of knowing something about the people I live among, said
DorotheaI am quite obliged to Mrs. Cadwallader for coming and calling me out of the
library. Quite right to feel obliged to me, said Mrs. Cadwallader. Your rich Lowick farmers

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are as curious as any buffaloes or bisons (360). This exchange reverberates multiply to
demonstrate how the invocation of natural science figuratively bridges the gap between the
familiar and the unknown. Dorothea feels as if she should know those who live in her midst, but
finds that she doesnt, and expresses her obligation to Mrs. Cadwallader for pointing out these
incongruities. Mrs. Cadwallader thus fills her most familiar roleas a vector by which
information and social bodies come together, even if only from the vantage point of distant
observation. But it is the canny zoological reference that she makes that confirms Dorothea in
her ignorance and also gently forgives it: these farmers are like buffaloes and bisons, natives of
the Americas, and of which neither is likely to have first-hand knowledge. These animals,
foreign and imbued with bovine simplicity, also function as a sharp commentary on the relative
ignorance and simplicity of the farmers themselves. With one well-chosen likeness, Mrs.
Cadwallader, drawing on zoological classification, smooths over a potentially awkward social
moment while simultaneously rendering a subtle judgment.
This knowledge of natural classification extends in her characterization of a stranger of
the partyJoshua Riggwho Mrs. Cadwallader described as frog-face, a man whose physical
characterizations have a certain batrachian unchangeableness of expression in the explication
provided by the narrator (366). Though the term batrachian, referring to the Linnaean order
composed of frogs and tailless amphibians, is derived, unsurprisingly, from the Greek and Latin
words that populate such Linnaean categories. The gulf between Mrs. Cadwalladers
observationshe knows merely that his physiology is frog-likeand the narrators knowledge
of the classificatory order highlights the schism between the amateur and the quasi-professional
scientist. Mrs. Cadwallader has the correct impulses and a casual knowledge of animalia,
whereas the narrator has a more acute and informed knowledge; the Oxford English Dictionary,

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which records the first major instance of the word batrachian in 1834, would place the
narrators usage (in the temporal logic of the novel) even earlier than the OEDs recorded
instance. The narrators knowledge of science is absolutely up-to-date, even in her off-hand
linguistic commentary.
In another instance that reveals both the narrator and Mrs. Cadwalladers zoological
prowess, the narration elliptically cites a conversation in which Mrs. Cadwallader is taking part:
somebody had prophesied that it [the Pioneer, Mr. Brookes journalistic political organ] would
soon be like a dying dolphin, and turn all colours for want of knowing how to help itself (676).
Lest the ambiguity hold, Mrs. Cadwallader is shortly afterward quoted as saying the Pioneer
keeps its colour, and Mr Orlando Ladislaw is making a sad dark-blue scandal by warbling
continually with your Mr Lydgates wifeIt seems nobody ever goes into the house without
finding this young gentleman lying on the rug or warbling at the piano (676-677). 31 The Pioneer
is a hale dolphin, rendered healthy by the exertions of Ladislaw, according to Mrs. Cadwallader;
her earlier reference to the physiological mutations of dying dolphins is confidently answered by
insisting that the figurative dolphin has retained its healthy color. But she morphs the zoological
reference to dolphins to a parallel reference to warbling birds, snarkily and subtly referring to
Rosamonds home as a nest of sorts, which compels its inhabitants and even visitors to adopt the
roles of ornamental songbirds, a backhanded commentary on the reception of Rosamond by the
larger Middlemarch society as nothing more than a trophy wife to Lydgate.
The problem, however, with Mrs. Cadwalladers scientific references is that though she
appears to possess knowledge of the natural world, the narrators refereeing makes it clear that
this knowledge is perhaps only superficial, amateurish. To be sure, Mrs. Cadwalladers
31

Mrs. Cadwalladers knowledge is not limited to the sciences as here, where she invokes the jilted lover Orlando
from Ariostos Italian epic Orlando Furioso.

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knowledge is wider than it is deep; she rarely sticks to one branch of scientific discourse,
scattering her commentary broadcast over various scientific fields. Just when she seems to
adhere to a particular discourse, she veers off into another. In a speculative discussion on the
difficulties of medical diagnosis and treatment, she explains divergences of effect in the
following way: You have two sorts of potatoes, fed on the same soil. One of them grows more
and more watery--, before she is interrupted (116). The leap from human bodies to those of
potatoes speaks to a careful observation of agricultural anomalies, available to the inhabitant of
the agricultural districts that make up Middlemarch, but it is also a figurative displacement of
human intricacy and individuality into the realm of farming and botany, which is nevertheless
not unknown to her listeners; she is interrupted, at any rate, by a respondent who affirms the
likeness. This is perhaps typical of the nave amateur, who is capable of seeing likenesses among
the inhabitants of the natural world, but who does not necessarily know the ultimate meaning of
these connections.
The botanical mode of Mrs. Cadwalladers thought sticks when she characterizes
Ladislaw as a very pretty sprig (364), a descriptor that becomes an epithet in others
characterizations of Ladislaw. A very pretty sprig, said Mrs. Cadwallader, dryly. What is your
nephew to be, Mr Casaubon? (364). Mrs. Cadwallader spins a single botanical term, sprig,
whose register is ultimately domestic, insofar as it describes plants in a form that is most familiar
as ornament or decoration-- into a sarcastic commentary on Ladislaw as embryonic, infantile,
unformed. The logic of the appellation is that if Ladislaw is a sprig, then he is as yet
immaturea sprig in theory grows into a tree. The pretty sprig, however, morphs over the
course of the novel as Mrs. Cadwallader reappraises his relative threat to the stability of
Middlemarchs orderwhen he takes over the Pioneer, he becomes a dangerous young sprig,

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a troublesome sprig that needs to be ejected from the community in order to restore order
(415). Nevertheless, Mrs. Cadwallader retains the inherent meaning of her likeness in spite of the
change in tenor.
Perhaps Mrs. Cadwalladers most famous scientific bon mot comes in the form of an
early dismissal of Casaubon that sets the tone, with the help of the narrators dry bemusement
about Casaubons age and pursuits, for the readers acceptance of him. In a perverted echo of the
narrators own classification of Mrs. Cadwallader as a greedy protozoa or voracious unicellular
animalcule (83), Mrs. Cadwallader cannily invokes her own knowledge of microscopy. He has
got no good red blood in his body, said Sir James. No. Somebody put a drop under a
magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses, said Mrs. Cadwallader (96). Mrs.
Cadwallader takes a blithe characterization of Sir James Chettams ultimately an invocation of
the clichd figure of the red-blooded Englishman that Chettam so parodically embodies
himselfand turns it in the direction of a scientific literalism that, in the punchline, veers back
into figurative humor. But again, reading between the lines, this remark reveals Mrs.
Cadwalladers knowledge of the work of science. The invocation of the magnifying-glass,
however, is perfectly telling. Microscopes, of course, were in common usage for precisely the
sort of action that Mrs. Cadwallader describes; but they were pricey and specialized. As Lewes
says in his encouragement of the amateur scientist, As a beginning, get a microscope. If you
cannot borrow, boldly buy oneand while you are about it, do, if possible, get a good one
(Studies in Animal Life 8). Lewes, intent on encouraging the proliferation of scientific
observation, encourages the study of microscopic forms for ones edification and pleasure. But,
as Menke notes in his careful readings of Lewess testimony in support of vivisection, Lewes is
invested in encouraging scientific experimentation only when such experimentation will be

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conducted mindfully and sensitively. A magnifying-glass, however, as Mrs. Cadwalladers figure


of speech cites, would be the sort of instrument most readily available and least expensive for the
amateur; but, tellingly, it would not reveal the depth that a microscope would. Thus, Mrs.
Cadwalladers scathing critique of Casaubon points out her amateurishness. This makes her no
less appealing to the reader, but it does undermine the authority with which Mrs. Cadwallader
issues her figurative pronouncements.
Mrs. Cadwallader represents an early, and insufficient, form of scientific observation that
merely yields figuratively effective resultsher likenesses, metaphors, displacements are usually
apt, but not ambitious. As she says, ironically, I, for my part, object to the discussion of Human
Nature, because that is the nature of rectors wives (594). She says this knowingly ironically
because she is a rectors wife, and her business is, usually, to talk of human nature. But it is also
unintentionally ironic, in that her discussions of human nature are often couched in scientific
allusions and metaphors. We feel inclined to forgive her this unselfconsciousness, as we know
that she is blind to her own determining fault. But it is this fault that precludes her being able to
make connections beyond the level of the amateur-observer. She is a fallible, one-dimensional
figure, governed by her desire to know and communicate the workings of the community to her
own, predetermined ends. She represents, then, Spinozas most rudimentary form of
knowledgethe knowledge of the world that is gleaned through the unfiltered senses, and which
is interpreted to the ends that most serve the subjects own predilections, beliefs, and interests.
As Spinoza explains in the Ethics, this first kind of knowledge is inherently false, a knowledge
gleaned from singular things which have been represented to us through the senses in such a
way which is mutilated, confused, and without order for the intellectfor that reason I have
been accustomed to call such perceptions knowledge from random experience, or is knowledge

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that derives from signs.from the fact that, having heard or read certain words, we recollect
things, and form certain ideas of them, like those through which we imagine the things (Ethics
II.P40S2). This aptly explains Mrs. Cadwalladers scientific imagery, drawn from imperfect
knowledge gathered from disparate and second-hand sources. Mrs. Cadwallader, for instance,
may have seen a buffalo or bison in the zoo, may have read, or heard, about thembut she does
not know, ultimately, their nature; they are, to her, half-formed, imagistic, and imaginary. Her
seemingly-apt metaphorization of human beings accordingly suffers from her amateurish and
unformed knowledge of the operation of science, even as it may depict a likeness.
George Eliot knows that the connections between the very small and the very large,
especially in the realm of biological study, betray a certain unity of organic form. She reflects on
ability of science to bridge between the observation of minutiae and the observation of human
life in The Mill on the Floss: for does not science tell us that its highest striving is after the
ascertainment of a unity which will bind the smallest things with the greatest? In natural science,
I have understood, there is nothing petty to the mind that has a large vision of relations and to
which every single object suggests a vast sum of conditions. It is surely the same with the study
of human life (307-308). George Eliots tentative narrator in this early novel is less prone to the
enthusiasm that Lewes expresses when he disabuses the readers fears about the interlocking
nature of organic life, but the meaning is identical in these two passages; indeed, it almost seems
as if George Eliots narrator is paraphrasing Lewes. It is this abiding beliefthat there is a
necessary interconnection to the natural worldthat motivates the novels ubiquitous use of
metaphor. Metaphor is a vector for conveying likeness through language, a crucial buildingblock of fictional intelligibility.

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One of the things that reading novels does for us is to underscore what Lewes argues is
the nature of our common humanity: We know that the thoughts and feelings of other men are
both like and unlike our own thoughts and feelings; we know that their mental processes are like
ours, and that the products of such processes vary with variable experiences; we know that our
own minds are not what they were in early days, but have grown and developed under conditions
similar to those which have determined the growth of other minds. From all this we conclude
that human experiences have much that is common and constant, underlying much that is
particular and fluctuating (Problems, Vol.2, 3). As explained in the introduction to this
dissertation, George Eliot, too, subscribes to a version of this social interdependence derived
from Spinoza and filtered through the materialism of Feuerbach and Strauss. Inescapably, we
participate in and co-generate our species-being in the common activities that, as Marx
elaborates in his early work, consist of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking,
contemplating, sensing, wanting, acting, lovingin short, all the organs of his individuality, like
the organs which are directly communal in form, are in their objective approach or in their
approach to the object the appropriation of that object. This appropriation of human reality, their
approach to the object, is the confirmation of human reality (Economic and Philosophic
Manuscripts of 1844, Early Writings, 351). As Marx notes in the Grundrisse, human beings
become individuals only through the process of history. He appears originally as a species-being,
clan-being, herd animal (496). We must provide for ourselves and for others in order to persist
as individuals; the foundation of our individuality is rooted in our ability to parlay that
individuality into a sense of commonality. Species is a varietal of totality, in that it imagines a
collectivity that is indivisible, inescapable and eminently material. As species is rooted in Nature,
man as a species-being is that which, as an animal that lives on organic nature, uses that Nature

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both to produce himself (through life-sustaining sensuous activity like eating, drinking, etc.) and
is, as a product of Nature, also Nature (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844). Man
consumes and produces Nature, and is inside of Nature at the same time as he comes to see
Nature as an object. Marx goes on to note that man as a species-being is constituted by these
activities of production and consumption. This sounds a lot like Spinozas radical holism, the
immanence of God (or Nature) in its absolute materiality, and his theory of immanence as
constituted by modalities of being and the affectivity of subjects and objects within that
immanence.32
Gillian Beer contextualizes the scientific branch of this line of thought in her reading of
Darwins language. Darwins insistence on mans animality, and his descent from other animals,
is part of what she calls his leveling tendency, which she argues has come to first neutralize,
then give value to, terms such as inhabitants and beings: [Darwins] emphasis upon kinship
changed the status of words such as inhabitants or beings into a far more egalitarian form.
Lineage escapes from class and then from kind.The utopian drive in Darwins thinking
declares itself in the leveling tendency of his language, which always emphasizes those elements
32

Both Feuerbach and Spinoza trade on what Moira Gatens characterizes as radical holism insinuating that the
coequal immanence that Spinoza argues for, and the insistence by Feuerbach on the absolute materiality of, the
world are two sides of the same coin. Feuerbach, in arguing ultimately for the productive encounter between man as
the establishment of the material world for man, is borrowing a line from Spinoza, though at the cost of
misunderstanding the fundamental a priori of Spinozas philosophyhis procession from the assumption that the
world itself is a given, and that the origin of the world need not necessarily be interrogated or understood, but
merely taken as it is. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, in a book (Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us
Modernity) that is otherwise problematic, gives an extended account of this a priori of Spinoza (52-57). Feuerbachs
late claim that
Nature works and produces everywhere only in and with connectiona connection which is reason for
man, for wherever he perceives connection, he finds sense, material for the thinking, sufficient reason,
systemonly from and with necessity. But also the necessity of Nature is no human, i. e., no logical,
metaphysical or mathematical, in general no abstracted one; for natural beings are no creatures of thought,
no logical or mathematical figures, but real, sensual individual beingsNature can generally be understood
only through herself; she is that whose idea depends on no other being. (Religion 55)
It is this recapitulation and modification of the immanence of Spinozas monist materialism that begets the
imperative in Feuerbach to engage with the world, which in turn leads to Marxs assertion that this engagement
cannot be abstract, isolated or conceptual, but material, a fact he couches in his definition of species-being.

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in meaning which make for community and equality and undermine the hierarchical and the
separatist (63). George Eliot, grappling with the dense philosophical implications of German
materialism elaborated by Strauss and Feuerbach (among others, and which is explored at more
length in the introduction of this dissertation), is capable, like Darwin, of making the leap past
mans hubris that would otherwise cringe at the thought of being descended from apes: The
leveling of man with other species is not, then, in Darwins thinking a necessarily punitive
enterprise. Only mans own hubris makes him feel it as such. To Darwin the multitudinous
fecundity and variety of life had more than enough room for man among all other living beings
(Beer 67). One may as well substitute George Eliot, or Lewes, for Darwin in that appraisal of the
marvel of mans natural development. George Eliot, after all, refers to her pet, Pug, as her slow
child (GEL III, 304), and Lewes refers to his laboratory frogs as his old friends (GEL VI,
189); though clearly meant humorously, these doting reference clearly demonstrates the close
relationship man has to animals. Mrs. Cadwalladers likening of humans and human behavior to
those of cellular creatures and animals only underscores Beers reading of Darwins thought,
which is clearly endorsed by Lewes and George Eliot quite uncriticallythat there is no longer
the chauvinistic hierarchy that presumes man to be the center of the complex biological world,
but that rather, there is a sort of generous equality among species of life. This, Levine elliptically
argues, is what proves Mrs. Cadwalladers point of view at least partially justified in that it
reveals a sensitivity to this organic equality (Realism, Ethics and Secularism 41). Mrs.
Cadwallader is only partially justified, however, insofar as her mode of intellect dwells in that
lowest level of Spinozist knowledgeand is therefore not optimally ethical.
The Reverend Farebrother is, like Mrs. Cadwallader, another vector by other protagonists
of the novel Mary Garth and Fred Vincy, Lydgate and Rosamond, Dorothea come together,

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or achieve some more refined knowledge of themselves. As such, he is a good version of Mrs.
Cadwallader; instead of seeking to achieve her self-serving ends, Farebrother is more intent on
decreasing friction, and facilitating the desires of the other characters (sometimes to his own
detriment). Unlike Dorothea, he is not someone who actively seeks his martyrdom. As discussed
in the following chapter, Dorotheas early impulse to sacrifice herself at the altar of her future
husbands unrealized genius, to efface herself in marriage, is representative of the wrong kind of
knowledge, the first kind of knowledge, in Spinozas tripartite paradigm. She selfishly pursues
her own ends, even if those ends seem at odds with the affirmation of self, in that they seek to
obliterate the self. For Dorothea, these motivations are ultimately egoistic, even as they are also
self-abasing. The Reverend Farebrother, though less apt than Mrs. Cadwallader to deploy his
scientific knowledge verbally or figuratively, nevertheless actively incorporates his study of flora
and fauna in his understanding of the worldand so comes closer than her to an understanding
of the immanence of the natural world.
The gentle Reverend Farebrother is much admired and respected in Middlemarch, but as
he is not a social climber, he often finds himself strategically excluded from opportunities
extended to others, as evidenced in the hospital committees vote for Reverend Tyke (216-217).
This is perhaps because Farebrother is an anomaly (195), a modern-day St. Francisa parson
among parishioners whose lives he has to try to make better[who] ought to thinkthat it is
needful to preach to the birds (537). Indeed, he is a good fellow (213) who is not strictly
doctrinal; Mr. Larcher, one of the men in charge of the hospital worries that he is too lax for a
clergyman (215). Indeed, in Farebrothers generous activity, he is more of a performer than an
interpreter or expounder of strict church doctrine; in this, we must feel that he has George Eliots
sympathy, though of course these affective performances of charity, generosity and self-denial

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only serve to restrict his professional opportunities and deny him advancement. This accords
with George Eliots condemnation of dogma and doctrine.33 Furthermore, his sensitivity to
animals and to suffering humans make him a force of compassion in the novel; this compassion
is distinctly related to his scientific pursuits. Farebrother, in addition to being a vicar, is an
enthusiastic naturalist. Unlike Mrs. Cadwalladers scientism, Farebrother is directly engaged in
scientific pursuits in his free time; it is both a hobby and a passion for him.
When the reader is ushered into Farebrothers study, the description humorously hones in
on its overflowing surfaces. Why was Camden in such a haste to take a visitor to his den? There
was nothing but pickled vermin, and drawers full of blue-bottles and moths, with no carpet on
the floor, his sisters and mother worry (201), though the study is nevertheless clean and
organized: the neat fitting-up of drawers and shelves, the bookcase filled with expensive
illustrated books on Natural History (202). Indeed, as the Reverend remarks to Lydgate, My
mother is not used to my having visitors who can take any interest in my hobbies, as he ushers
him into a room bare of luxuries except for a pipe and tobacco (201). His study of animal life
is fueled by an inexhaustible curiosity and a bottomless fund of interest and passion. He is
positively tickled to find in Lydgate another man who, he thinks, shares the same sort of
scientific drive and passion. As he explains to Lydgate, I have made an exhaustive study of the

33

Indeed, an exchange later in the text reveals the nature of George Eliots own position toward clerical authority
and behavior. Farebrother, at the end of a significant exchange with Lydgate, admits I am not a model clergyman
only a decent makeshift, acknowledging that he fails to participate in Bulstrodes sets narrow ignoran[ce]
[their] worldly-spiritual cliqueism [which] look[s] on the rest of mankind as a doomed carcase which is to nourish
them for heaven. Farebrother explains further that the divergence between the two men rests in the fact that he
doesnt teach [Bulstrodes] his opinionswhich he calls spiritual religion (206). That Farebrother quite easily
dismisses doctrine and dogma to opinion is in keeping with George Eliots own cultivated ideas about the nature of
Christianity, culled fairly directly from Strauss and Feuerbach. It is Farebrothers version of Christianity with which
George Eliot clearly concursher later condemnation and careful explication of the psychology of Christian
hypocrisy in Bulstrodes eleventh-hour suffering is a straightforward confirmation of Farebrothers estimation.
Bulstrode, in that episode, comes to pray for the guidance of God in his dealings with Raffles, but rather than seek
disinterestedly for Gods guidance and will, rather interposes his desires, grafting them onto the operation of Gods
laborHe knew that he ought to say, Thy will be done, and he said it often. But the intense desire remained that
the will of God might be the death of that hated man (750).

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entomology of this district. I am going on both with the fauna and flora; but I have at least done
my insects well. We are singularly rich in orthoptera (202). Farebrother is knowledgeable both
about what the country around him yields, and about the limitations of his endeavors; the country
yields so much bounty for a naturalist that he explains in an rueful tone that he could never have
the last say on what the natural world around him yields. He has, in his estimation, only made a
dent in categorizing the insects at hand. Whereas Mrs. Cadwallader boldly samples a tremendous
variety of scientific discourses in her metaphorization, Farebrother is constrained by an acute
knowledge of one particular area of study. When Lydgate permits Farebrother to expand, the true
depth of the knowledge is lovingly revealed: You dont know what it is to want spiritual
tobaccobad emendations of old texts, or small items about a variety of Aphis brassicae, with
the well-known signature of Philomicron, for the Twaddlers Magazine; or a learned treatise on
the entomology of the Pentateuch, including all the insects not mentioned, but probably met with
by the Israelites in their passage through the desert; with a monograph on the Ant, as treated by
Solomon, showing the harmony of the Book of Proverbs with the results of modern research
(202). Farebrother is, though not a scientist by trade, distinctly more than an amateur. The
vocation of scientist was not yet fully an employment in this era; Elizabeth Gaskell is perhaps the
most insistent commentator on the transition from the scientific hobbyist to the employed
scientist, a historical development that occurs in the period.34

34

Job Legh in Mary Barton, is a working man whose leisure time is entirely dedicated to the cataloguing of natural
specimens and oddities; his shining moment is when Will promises to deliver to him a flying fish specimen.
Although critics have commented on the bourgeois idealization that Job Leghs character reveals in Gaskellthe
fantasy that a hard-working factory hand would have the time, education, and inclination to so assiduously pursue
sciencesuch skepticism may reveal as much about contemporary critics own bourgeois blindness to the workings
of the organic intellectual in working class populations. Roger Hamley, in her final novel Wives and Daughters,
represents the apotheosis of the Victorian scientist; Hamley leverages a passion for science into a two-year
expedition to Africa for the purposes of observing and collecting specimens. What had not been a possibility for
Legh is now a possibility for Hamley: remunerative labor doing the work of what had hitherto been the domain of
enthusiastic amateurs. Truly, in most accounts of natural science in the Victorian era, historians are quick to remark

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Farebrothers passion is unflagging: he enjoins Lydgate to look through [his] drawers


and agree with [him] about all [his] new speciesdo look at these new orthoptera!using
agree in this injunction to signify humoring him (204). The counterpoint to this whole
conversation staged in the naturalists study, is Lydgates morose discourse on human ambition
and their careful mapping out of the various hospital directors votes. Farebrother reveals an
acute knowledge of human workings; as he gently informs Lydgate, we Middlemarchers are not
so tame as you take us to be. We have our intrigues and our parties. I am a party man, for
example, and Bulstrode is another. If you vote for me you will offend Bulstrode (205). This is
clear foreshadowing because, as we know, though it does not end well, Lydgate finds himself
dependent on the good graces and influence of Bulstrode. Farebrother, though he could certainly
use the additional salary that the post promises, nevertheless recognizes his pastoral
responsibility to counsel Lydgate to act on his own best interests. This generosity of spirit
represents something far more evolved than the limited ethical knowledge of Mrs. Cadwallader;
Farebrother is capable of sacrificing, at least in part, his own opportunities because of his belief
in the opportunities of others. Indeed, the gently humorous counterpoint in the whole
conversation Farebrothers attempt to ignite the interest of Lydgate in his specimens
demonstrates that in spite of this knowledge of human behavior, Farebrother is far more at home
with his animals. It is perhaps because Farebrother has so long and so unstintingly studied animal
behavior that he so clearly sees the patterns and motivations in human behaviors, but at any rate,
it is the latter that is of less interest to Farebrother. So Farebrothers human concernsmoney,
advancement, marriageare repeatedly sacrificed to others more pressing claims, and the full
extent of Farebrothers compassion is routinely invoked. He is not a martyr because he does not

on the fact that without such a dedicated cadre of hobbyists, the work of classification and documentation might
never have crystallized into discourse the way that it ultimately did.

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actively seek his own dissolution, but rather a continuous victim of his own bugbear fault,
compassion. As explored in depth in the next chapter, George Eliot suspiciously regards
compassion or empathy as ineffective models of a philosophy of sympathy. Though Farebrother
is certainly not denounced by the novel, he is no less a victim of his own self-interests, which in
his case means that he willingly takes a backseat to the motivated interests of others except when
to do so would involve a violation of his Christian moral code.
So much does Farebrother subordinate his own interests to the advancement of others that
no one but Mary Garth recognizes his sacrifice of her to Fred Vincy, bowing out as he does in
the face of Marys fondness for Fred. To this end, he seeks to reform and correct Fred so as to
make him worthy of Marys love, though he turns his acute naturalists eye on Freds behavior,
early bemoaning it: I wish Fred were not such an idle dog (440).35 This characterization of
Freds puppyish behavior, motivated as he is by an unfocused and energetic aimlessness and
pleasure-seeking, is one that sticks, and though it seems a throwaway epithet, it, like Mrs.
Cadwalladers description of Ladislaw as a young sprig, sticks. In such a way, Farebrother
actually does act as a St. Francis figure, preaching moderation and temperance to the animals
figuratively represented by the dog, Fred.36 Fred, like any other strong dog who cannot slip his
collar, had pulled up the staple of his chain and made a small escape, not of course meaning to
go fast or far, merely straying back to his bad habits by drifting over to the Green Dragon for
billiards and booze (723). It is here that Farebrother catches himwith the effect of a sharp
35

Zadie Smith, in her essay on Middlemarch in Changing My Mind, seizes on the figure of Fred Vincy as the most
compelling character in the novel. Given her fondness for wayward youthepitomized in her novels White Teeth
and On Beautyher sympathy with Fred should be no surprise. She explains, For the mature George Eliot, the
trivial problems of a Fred, the commonplaces he thinks and speaks, these are human experience, too, and therefore
sacred (34). In many ways, Smith explains, precisely because he is egoistic, simple, self-driven and un-selfconscious, bumbling Fred is Eliots ideal Spinozian subject (34).
36
Other animal tropes that come to mind from the novel are the ways in which Celia and Dorothea refer to each
other by nicknames that are both abbreviations, linguistically speaking, and animal referencesCelia calls Dorothea
Dodo and Dorothea calls Celia Kitty. These tender appellations only serve to reinforce the inescapable
zoological trope in the novel.

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concussion (725)-- and in that classical image of St. Francis with the birds, catechizes and
corrects Fred, whose dogness is reinforced by the narrators repetition of the likeness (726-729).
Farebrother effectively renounces his claim to Marys hand in this exchange, extracting from
Fred a renewed promise of better behavior and steady devotion as compensation, a move that
baffles Fred, the undeveloped but pliable egoist, who marvels that It certainly would have been
a fine thing for her to marry Farebrotherbut if she loves me best and I am a good husband?
(729). In an ironic echo of Mrs. Cadwalladers botanical characterization of Ladislaw as a sprig,
Farebrother has paved the way already by melancholically admitting that he is probably an old
stalk who is being pushed aside by the young growths (557).37
Whatever one thinks about Farebrothers renunciation, and the sadness he is heir to by his
own hand,38 he nevertheless behaves in accordance with the second level of knowledge described
by Spinoza in The Ethics. The second order of knowledge is governed by reason, which is
necessarily true (Ethics II.P41) and teaches us to distinguish the true from the false (Ethics
II.P42). As this knowledge springs rationally from an adequate knowledge of the world, by
extension, this means that this knowledge is built on an accurate knowledge of the position of the
subject in the world, the means by which it affects and is affected. Because it is adequate, it is
relatively free from imagination, error, and opinion, and is reasonably self-conscious.
Understanding, as he does, the interconnections present in natureand revealing his knowledge
37

Zadie Smith wistfully remarks that George Eliots portrayal of Farebrother, like her portrayal of Fred, are
ultimately Spinozist insofar as Farebrothers satisfaction [at realizing the good hes managed for Fred and Mary
Garth]like all the satisfactions Middlemarch offers, is not transcendental, but of the earth (39). An ethical
achievement has occurred with regards to Farebrother, but unlike the Christian ideals of self-sacrifice, George
Eliots Spinozist materialism places Farebrothers sacrifice firmly on the ground. And these minor triumphs are
realistically ambivalent; Farebrother does good for others at the loss of a good for himself, but it is these ethical
decisions whose ripples fan outward and outward and reveal the unity in Eliots diffusion (Smith 38).
38
Indeed, Mrs. Garth is perhaps the most affected by the apparent sacrifice made by Farebrother. Once more
adopting the trope of growths, sprigs and stalks, she marvels sadly that Fred, this blooming youngster, should
flourish on the disappointments of sadder and wiser people (619); she is clearly indicating Farebrother in the course
of the conversation with Fred, but she may as well be implicating her own husbands numerous generous sacrifices
for Fred, and their familys suffering at the hands of the love that is so apparent between Fred and Mary.

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of the order of things, that young, aggressive growths can easily supplant the old stalkshe is
capable of framing out a knowledge of the world that admits of its immanence. But, he is
nevertheless obstructed by his excess of compassion. He acts for the advancement of others, a
generosity that is only plausible by his recognition, simultaneously, of his own interests and of
the interests of others, while nonetheless ceding whatever claims he could register for social
advancement and greater happiness to the younger, hardier creatures that circulate through
Middlemarch. Thus, Farebrothers careful observation, cultivation and collection of specimens
he rejoices so at the promise of sea-mice in spirits! (204)prepare him for a more thorough
knowledge of the operations of humans in the world. The insistent reminders of other characters
that he is more suited to be a St. Francis than a provincial vicar serve to reinforce Farebrothers
divine intuition that, as in the case of St. Francis, animals are no less worthy of the love of God
than his human brethren. Farebrother intuitively bestows a great honor on Fred by generously
recognizing that Fred is an accidental or inadvertent egoist, and no less worthy of redemption
and happiness for this; it is only in the innocence of being canid that the egoism which so
plagues Rosamond, for instancethat Fred largely escapes the censure of the narrator.
So it is that we see that the study of animals, of physiology, of anatomical details, was for
Victorian scientists and natural philosophers, and especially Lewes, merely a path to the
understanding of human beings. For George Eliot, too, the leap from the minute observation of
the natural world is an analogue to the study of human life. There is a circularity in this chain of
reasoning, however. The microscopic study of organisms yields revelations about the immanent
structure of Nature, which is in turn read into macroscopic patterns of human behavior; this is a
metaphor for the inescapable framework of immanence that George Eliot adopts from Spinozas
philosophy. This isnt to say that Spinoza advocates a unicity or totality that is impenetrable, but

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that rather, his vision of immanence contains multitudes, to adapt Whitman.39 Again, Lewes
remarks upon this totality of Nature: Far as the mightiest telescope can reach, it detects worlds
in clusters, like pebbles on the shores of Infinitude; deep as the microscope can penetrate, it
detects Life within Life, generation within generation (Studies in Animal Life, 26). After all,
Life cradles within Life. The bodies of animals are little worlds, having their own animals and
plants (7).40 Life here is a parallelized term, intentionally syntactically doubledand worlds are
not distinct from each other aside from their apparent divergence; Life, with the capital L so
reminiscent of allegorical and metaphysical studies that sought to render such concepts
archetypal and universal, is immanently apotheotic.

39

Pierre Macherey explores at length the concept of infinitude in Spinozas work, waging battle against Hegel and
those after, who sought to ascribe to infinity a bad progression, a denial of finitude, self-knowledge and teleology.
Spinoza appears to anticipate these later critiques in his own philosophical endorsement of a constitutive infinity in
immanence. Seemingly paradoxically, Spinozas geometric method presents that which is infinite, because it
cannot be determined by a number, even though it is contained with certain limits (137). It is this intensive infinity
[that] directly expresses an immanent and nontransitive relation, which links substance to its affections and is known
only through the intellect. From this understanding something very important can be also be concluded: infinity, as it
can be understood in the modes, is no different from infinity that constitutes substance; rather, it is formally the
same thing (140). Immanence, then, is infinite and intensive, and infinity is contained therein even as it is infinite
rather as the space between any two numbers can contain infinite self-division, as the progression of numbers is also
infinite. Nature is thus composed of nothing but composite bodies, or individuals, Macherey later concludes,
wrapping his point, because every finite mode is determined by an infinite sequence of causes, which signifies that
all finite determination is also infinite, at the same time through the infinite power [puissance] of its immanent
cause, which is substance itself, and through the infinite multiplicity of its transitive causes (156).
40
Spinoza, in Letter 12, to Lodewijk Meyer, reflects on the nature of the infinitude of Substance by remarking on
the two locations of infinitythat which extends indefinitely into horizon, and the infinity that is nestled between
any numbers. The first infinity is unlimited (Letters 101), acting as it does upon the simple operation of addition;
to imagine this infinity, one must merely abstract the algebraic principle of x+1, to an n th iteration. The other,
Spinoza illustrates in a pragmatic fashion: For in order that an hour should pass by, a half-hour must first pass by,
and then half of the remainder, and the half of what is left; and if you go on thus subtracting half of the remainder to
infinity, you can never reach the end of the hour (Letters 104). In acknowledging and juxtaposing these two
versions of infinityinfinity by addition and by subtractionSpinoza admits the full breadth of the concept of
infinity. This leads him into the reflection that Substance is not manifold; rather there exists only one Substance of
the same natureno Substance can be conceived as other than infinite (Letters 102). Lewes, in reflecting on the
Life nestled within Life, is translating the numerical infinity of Spinoza (numerically abstract at this point in his
letters because of his work with Descartes) to biological principles. Though Lewes had no access to the
developments of late-twentieth-century science, which has labored to explain and uncover the components of
matterlaying bare quarks and other subatomic particles, to say nothing of sciences extension into that other,
additive infinityboth he and Spinoza clearly understand that the full breadth of Substance includes things which
they can neither see, nor imagine, but that they know to be there. For infinity is, as Macherey points out in his
reading of Spinoza, unimaginable, although paradoxically, knowable.

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Thus as Sally Shuttleworth notes in her study of nineteenth-century science and George
Eliots novels, The structure of Middlemarch conforms to Lewess definition of organic life:
The part exists only as part of a whole; the whole exists only as a whole of its parts (147).
Shuttleworths reading of George Eliots novels seeks to demonstrate that the novels seek to
depict a sense of totalitythat the novels attempt to encapsulate an ambitious wholeness, though
she is forced to admit that the commitment to totality is ultimately an ambivalent judgment in the
novel (171); she perhaps shares Beers concern that this organic totality is ultimately undone by
a desire to demonstrate fissure, disjunction, and divergence (Beer 159). There is no question,
however, that the densely interconnected plotting of the novel in spite of its disparate origins as
wholly separate narrativesultimately points to a unity that defines the novel. One only has to
read the felicitous turns of the plotthat Bulstrode is ultimately connected to Ladislaw; that
Raffles is ministered to by Lydgate; that Ladislaw is Casaubons cousin as indicative of the
cohesion of the novel as an analogue for the immanent totality of life. Miller, in The Form of
Victorian Fiction, remarks that Victorian fiction, like fiction in general, has a single pervasive
theme: interpersonal relations see[ing] them in the context of community (94). Middlemarch
is, ultimately, a pond, replete with the teeming infinity of life that Lewes so fondly references in
his Studies of Animal Life.
Lydgate and Casaubon both of whom seek totalizing theories in their intellectual
laborare representative of these Victorian tendencies. What precludes the ultimate success of
these two characters, however, is the hubris which attends these projects.41 Lydgates search for
41

Whereas the immanence of Spinoza is no less a totalizing system, it is rooted ultimately in a humility that was
registered by Lewes in his biographical reflections on the life of Spinoza and likewise motivates George Eliots own
reflection that What is wanted in English is not a translation of Spinozas works, but a true estimate of his life and
system (GEL I 321). Lewess chapter in his Biographical History of Philosophy likewise repeatedly underscores
and marvels at is what he stresses is Spinozas essential humility. Immanence, moreover, has the benefit of not being
a universalizing narrativeperhaps one of the weaknesses of the system is that it is ultimately a neutral ontology of
sorts; it merely seeks to describe the world as it is, not project or predict results, or to conclusively interpret a too-

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the primitive tissue that serves as the singular physiological principle by which scientists were
to come to understand the workings of the body is ultimately vain (178). Lydgate is a medical
man whose ambitions are ultimately foolhardy and misguided, even if they are rigorously rooted
in the science of the times; the narrative takes ample time to explain the scientific milieu in
which Lydgate was operating.
The more he [Lydgate] became interested in special questions of disease, such as the
nature of fever or fevers, the more keenly he felt the need for that fundamental
knowledge of structure which just at the beginning of the century had been illuminated by
the brief and glorious career of Bichat[who] first carried out the conception that living
bodies, fundamentally considered, are not associations of organs which can be
understood by studying them first apart, and then as it were federally; but must be
regarded as consisting of certain primary webs or tissues, out of which the various
organsbrain, heart, lungs, and so onare compacted, as the various proportions of
wood, iron, stone, brick, zinc, and the rest, each material having its peculiar composition
and proportions (177)
Lydgate is looking for some empirical principle of interconnection: an over-arching theory that
unites all of the various mechanisms of living things, a grand narrative of Life. There is a
scientific precedent for this in the work of Bichat, but the impulse is misguided and grandiose
and is indicative of Lydgates signal faults and egoism.42 Seeking a rule sidesteps the principle
that there are multiple rulesthe various modes of the Ethicsall of which are subordinate to
the singular principle of immanence. Lydgates grandiosity is apparent in the narrators
wide variety of phenomena under a simplifying rubric like Casaubons presumptuous Key to All Mythologies. The
infinite immanence of life is for Spinoza impossible to imagine but ultimately knowable, even if imperfectly.
42
Here, it bears repeating, Diana Postlethwaites chapter in the Cambridge Companion to George Eliot, Eliot and
Science, and Robert Greenbergs 1975 article Plexuses and Ganglia: Scientific Allusion in Middlemarch are
excellent sources that carefully work out the intricacies of scientific reference in George Eliots work.

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characterization of his desire: he longed to demonstrate the more intimate relations of living
structure and help to define mens thought more accurately after the true order (178). The
aspiration to change mens minds is an operation doomed to failure, as we see repeatedly
throughout this novel full of self-limiting egoists, even if it is ultimately generous; indeed, one
attempt to make headway against the provincialism of Middlemarch fails on account of his
patients willful ignorance, and summed up comitragically in the pithily known fac that he had
wanted to cut up Mrs. Goby (481). Lydgate, for all of his intellectual accomplishment and
theoretical ability, is balked on many fronts, the least of which is his patients reactionary
ignorance and endless appetite for patent medicines. These shortcomingswhich the narrator
comments upon by way of drawing the readers attention to the fact that our vanities differ as
our noses do (179)are quasi-scientific in their implications. Our vanities, like the various
approaches to an experimental apparatus, are going to yield a multiplicity of inadequate
knowledges grounded in more-or-less the same principles of ignorance. The narrator remarks
that Lydgates acute intellectualism prevents him from understanding that the observation of
other human beings, knowledge of their motivations and tendencies, is equally important in any
theory that seeks to explain the holistic workings of organic life.43 Lydgates monomaniacal
pursuit of a monolithic organic principle is indicative of his inability to permit conflicting
perspectives. Lydgates knowledge of other human beings is, moreover, faulty; the narrative of
his life as a student and his brief infatuation with Madame Laure (180-181), to say nothing of his
grinding failures to understand his own wife, prove that Lydgate is dense when it comes to
43

In this way, the identity of the title of Lydgates project and that of Lewess project, perhaps stands out in greatest
relief. Both entitle their works Problems of Life and Mind, but whereas Lydgates encyclopedic treatise never gains
traction, and is limited in his ignorance of human psychology, Lewess own project came to dominate his later life.
Lewess project precisely succeedsat least formally, in a consideration of the breadth of his subject matterwhere
Lydgates does not, though perhaps the subsequent relegation of his volumes to Victorian curiosity proves
ultimately that Lewes, too, failed to account for the totality of organic life. Lewes, at least, took into account,
perhaps too carefully to succeed resoundingly, the interposition of the subject and her psychology in the elaboration
of biological science.

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others. These spots of commonness relegate Lydgate to failure (179). The ultimate result is
that the narrator metaphorizes Lydgates failure far in advance of our certain knowledge of it in
an organic metaphor painting the whole of Middlemarch society as a hungry microorganism:
Middlemarch, in fact, counted on swallowing Lydgate and assimilating him very comfortably
(183). One of the incessant tragedies of the novel is that the narrative marks Lydgate from the
beginning; the rest of the long novel is a continuous rehearsal of Lydgates foreseen failures. The
denouementwherein Lydgate bitterly refers to Rosamond as the basil plant that finds
sustenance in the dead brains of great men (835)is a pathetic echo of the failure we were all
telegraphed was coming.
So, truly, the only character that succeeds in the endeavor to come to a totalizing theory
of interdependence is the narrator. In a move that is meta-textual, the narrator invokes,
repeatedly, the very scientific language that the novels characters themselves invoke in order to
communicate the clarity with which the narrator is capable of seeing the whole of Middlemarch.
It is the third kind of knowledge that the narrator of Middlemarch epitomizes and urges
on her readers. This knowledgeaptly summarized by Zadie Smith as pursuing what is best in
and best for their own natures (35)is characterized by Spinoza as an intuitive knowledge of
God. This knowledge is often fleeting, rarely attained, and difficult or impossible to maintain.
Though the fact of the matter is that the Victorian narratorin the absence of a God principle, a
Shaftesburyian narrative ethic is perfectly poised to assume this role. It is perhaps interesting
and fruitful, then, to consider the relative success of any given Victorian novel against the
seeming accuracy of its narrators judgments and observations; one might find that the more
enduring and popular Victorian novels, those with the longest shelf-life, are those that we silently
judge to be the most accurate in their estimations of the workings of human life. Smith

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tentatively advocates such a reading Why do we like them so much? Because they seem so
humane (39). The ambiguity of themthe characters? the narrators? the novels?is crucial
in explaining the dense totality present in George Eliots best fiction, and the best realist fiction
of the era.
In the narrators first characterization of Mrs. Cadwallader, she is the subject of a
rhetorical question whose answer humorously reveals Mrs. Cadwalladers scientific inclinations.
Now, why on earth would Mrs. Cadwallader have been at all busy about Mrs. Brookes
marriage [?]Was there any ingenious plot, any hide-and-seek course of action, which might be
detected by a careful telescopic watch? Not at all: a telescope might have swept the parishes of
Tipton and Freshitt, the whole area visited by Mrs. Cadwallader in her phaeton without
revealing the rationale for her particular interest (83). The narrator here invokes the telescope in
order to macroscopically frame out the breadth of Middlemarch society, and to properly frame
Mrs. Cadwalladers phaeton-driven movement among its inhabitants. But the reference to the
telescope is inverted in the narrators further clarification of Mrs. Cadwalladers modus
operandi:
Even with a microscope directed on a water-drop we find ourselves making
interpretations which turn out to be rather coarse; for whereas under a weak lens you may
seem to see a creature exhibiting an active voracity into which other smaller creatures
actively play is if they were so many animated tax-pennies, a stronger lens reveals to you
certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits
passively at his receipt of custom. In this way, metaphorically speaking, a strong lens
applied to Mrs. Cadwalladers matchmaking will show a play of minute causes producing

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what may be called thought and speech vortices to bring her the sort of food she needed.
(83)
The narrator builds a complex, nested, biological metaphor in her attempt to explain the behavior
of Mrs. Cadwallader. To begin, the narrator invokes the two directions in which aided
observation occursthe telescope and the microscope. But the narrator bemoans the frequent
insufficiency of even the microscope (here, to be read like the faulty mirror of Chapter 17 of
Adam Bede) in its misrepresentation of the truth of the matter observed. A weak-lensd
microscope would encourage a reading of Mrs. Cadwallader as a predatorily active creature,
seeking out victims and traversing the plains of the two parishes in search of fresh victims for her
voracious appetites. But the complication of the metaphor comes in its second register; a sharperlensd microscope might reveal, the narrator admits, the behavior of animalcules that resembles
less this seeming activity, but rather, a predatory passivity, like a tax-collector who knows that
his due will come to him by force of law. A correct knowledge of the world around us requires
more than the mere desire to know; if desire were sufficient, Mrs. Cadwalladers amateurish
qualifications of human behavior would suffice as commentary in the text. But this is not the
casethe novel requires the interposition of the narrator, that stronger lens that more correctly
sees the objects of our study. This reinforces the fact that the weak lenses, those of practically
any character in the novel, pale in comparison to the greater skill and ability of the narrator, and
by extension, the perceptive reader. The range through which the metaphor travelsfrom the
macro- to the micro-scopic, and from the observation of smaller and smaller creatures, whose
behavior is ultimately like those of humans, a considerably larger animal-- is indicative of the
larger metaphorical complexity of the narrators scientific allusions. The behavior of the
ultimately accurate small organismthe passive consumer whose hairlets create irresistible

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vacuums into which smaller fry find themselves drawnis no different from the recognizable
behavior of human tax collectors. (If Victorians were upset by the thought of being descended of
apes, then certainly the implication here, that human behavior is ultimately no more complex
than the machinations of unthinking protozoa, is almost certainly offensive.) Any offence,
however, is smoothed over by what becomes the narrators trademark move, which is to
announce that, ultimately these likenesses, as compelling as they may be, are nothing more than
metaphors. In this way, the narrator feels the need to invoke the instrumentality of scientific
observation of minute creatures in an effort to explain Mrs. Cadwalladers behavior, and in doing
so, becomes incredibly minutely entangled in the ramifications of this likenessbut the
narrators self-consciousness begets its own disentangling.44 But the nested and intercalating
levels of biological life, and the repetition of certain behaviors in completely different registers
of life, speak to George Eliots belief in the Darwinist and Victorian theories of organic totality
whose implications are, for George Eliot, through Spinoza, more philosophical than scientific.
That unicellular creatures and humans exhibit colorful variations of the same tendencies may
well speak to a theory of evolution based on animal instinctssomething confirmed by Darwins
observations of animalsbut it is no less philosophically profound, when read against Spinozist
immanence. That all thingsall forms of life, in this particular figure of speechare composed
of the same substance to some extent speaks to the univocity of being characteristic of one
reading of Spinozas immanence.45

44

What begins as a figure of speech is ultimately undone by the narration itselfthis is precisely what Wormald
points to as George Eliots own deconstructionist impulses avant-la-lettre, her inability to trust to the
communicability of language, in Microscopy and Semiotic in Middlemarch, his influential reading of
Middlemarch.
45
This phrase is borrowed from Badious characterization of Deleuzes Spinozism. Though Badiou is ultimately
invested in invoking this phrase as critical of Deleuze, I find, rather, that it is a smart paraphrase of Deleuzes
Spinozist investments. As Macherey points out, Deleuze positions his readings of Spinoza so as to lead the reader to
the conclusion that Deleuze in Spinoza is also Spinoza in Deleuze (120). This tight relationship makes it often
very difficult to be certain where the one philosopher begins and the other ends. But to be sure, my use of this phrase

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Another zoological parable the narrator delivers augments Mrs. Cadwalladers own
observations about Featherstones funeral party.
When the animals entered the Ark in pairs, one may imagine that allied species made
much private remark on each other, and were tempted to think that so many forms
feeding on the same store of fodder were eminently superfluous, as tending to diminish
the rations. (I fear the part played by the vultures on that occasion would be too painful
for art to represent, those birds being disadvantageously naked about the gullet, and
apparently without rites and ceremonies.) The same sort of temptation befell the Christian
Carnivora who formed Peter Featherstones funeral procession; most of them having
minds bent on a limited store which each would have liked to get the most of. (365)
George Eliots narrator here takes a common Biblical imagefamiliar to all children studying
religionof the Ark, and metaphorizes the image of the slow-moving procession as the
procession of the animals to the Ark. But the metaphor takes two turns. The first is when the
narrator slips into the parenthetical commentary about vultures; knowing what the narrator
knows about vultures, she wonders how they would find sustenance in the midst of the Arks
limited rations. The fact that vultures are scavengers is precisely elided in the image, referred to
only elliptically as a mock-polite commentary on their lack of rites and ceremonies. What
would the vultures eat? Moreover, the narrator ironically claims no desire to describe vultures
it would be too painful for art to representbut as careful readers of George Eliot, we know
that her commitment to realism means precisely that such things are eminently to be represented
as indicative of humanitys commonness, and not its exceptionalism. Besides which, she
proceeds to describe them (naked about the gullet) when she fails to describe any other birds.

as a parallel term to Spinozas immanence is problematic, but I seek to capture the aptness of the phrase as a means
of explaining the organic implications of the theory of immanence.

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The commentary that follows in the next paragraph is the narrators typical move of undoing the
figurative language she is otherwise seeking to develop. If we had any sense at all, we would
know that these funeral attendants were Featherstones kinnow illustrated as Christian
Carnivora. Perhaps it is Mrs. Cadwallader, aloofly commenting on the buffaloes and bison,
who is the vulture, picking over the procession;46 or perhaps it is the avaricious clan that has
materialized from thin air to make claims on the will. Either way, the relevance of the vulture is
clear to any reader attending the plot. But, in the move that solidifies this zoological reference in
a way that Mrs. Cadwalladers images never quite crystallize, the sweep of the image is so much
greater: by invoking the Ark, the narrator is crafting an image that encompasses the entirety of
the animal kingdom, even its less appreciated components.47
I at least have so much to do in unraveling certain human lots, and seeing how they were
woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular
web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe, the narrator
remarks (170). So it is that George Eliots narrator introduces the metaphor that comes to
dominate the novel: the web. This first invocation of the figure precedes and anticipates the pier
glass metaphor that so aptly contextualizes the narrators beliefs about the need for perspective
and the dialectical tensions between the subjective and the objective that figure so prominently in
the construction of the narrator in Victorian fiction. The web is a central metaphor in the text,
46

The narrator doesnt spare the reciprocal zoologizing of Mrs. Cadwallader, in a tit-for-tat sort of gesture. In this
passage, she is potentially read as a vulture. In another, entomological image, she is implicated with the other
busybodies of Middlemarch in the following: News is often dispersed as thoughtlessly and effectively as that
pollen which the bees carry off (having no idea how powdery they are) when they are buzzing off in search of their
particular nectar (645).
47
The breadth of this particular image is repeated in the narrators further reference to mated pairs and species. For
instance, the narrator quite cheekily mocks Lydgates psychological insufficiency by apostrophizing that he relied
on the differences between sexes as if they were goose and gander, he imagining the innate submissiveness of the
goose as beautifully corresponding to the strength of the gander (391). This image of Lydgates presumptive beliefs
is perfectly repeated by the narrators appraisal of Rosamonds ignorance: it seemed that she had no more identified
herself with him than if they had been creatures of a different species and opposing interests (642-643). Though it
is not necessarily the purview of this chapter to explore the Darwinian dynamics of sexual selection and adaptation,
these references to species are particularly intertextually rich.

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and actively impinges upon the actions of the characters in the novel, a narratorial invention that
takes on a life of its own. The figure of the web is a common trope in understanding the larger
social or spiritual significances that extend beyond the bound of the subjective. So, too,
Tennysons Lady of Shallott weaves endlessly her tapestries that are capable of reflecting the
view from her window. So, too, Dickens constructs his sweeping social vistas, constructed in
such a way at his heightas in Bleak House and Little Dorritthat no component of the farreaching plot is not, in some crucial way, related to the center of the plot. So it is that the narrator
can describe Lydgatefeeling the hampering threadlike pressure of small social conditions, and
their frustrating complexity (210). The web is a common, intelligible figure for understanding
the ways in which large social structures are composed. But, crucially, it also draws on a
naturalists knowledge of entomology. Any person knows that spiders spin webs, and has
probably seen a web up close at some point: this intimate sensory knowledge reveals, even
without any further scientific inquiry, that such webs have centers. In this way, the web can, but
should not, be seen as merely another iteration of George Eliots pier-glass image; it may appear
to be, but is not merely, another rehearsal of her critique of egoism, though we inevitably do, like
Rosamond as Ariadne (334) spin webs of fantasy around the absent center of our egoistic ideals.
It is the very fact of its commonness, though, that makes the evolution of the metaphor so
effective over the course of the novel. The commonplace image at least initially allows the reader
to imagine that they are at the center of their own web at the same time that such a belief is
implicitly criticized. This beliefof the readers centrality to the novelis underscored by the
complicity with which the reader participates in the illusion of the narrators mastery of her
subject matters. But this centrality is undermined by the ethical injunction of the novelto not
believe that one is the center of the world, but rather, one of many proliferating centers.

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Throughout the novel, it is through changing iterations of this image that George Eliot backdoors
her fundamental belief in the immanent impingement of all living things. This one crystalline
imagecrucially as delicate as a web isflexes, and permits accreting interpretations to be
caught in it.
This metaphoric registerthe critique of egoism and subjectivismis maintained
throughout the text; so it is that the characters industriously weave their own webs of egoistic
centrality: Lydgate fell to spinning that web from his inward self with wonderful rapidity.As
for Rosamondshe too was spinning industriously at the mutual web (380). In this version of
it, the egoism of one character is revealed to be working in tandem with anothers egoism, no
less fierce; the labor of the two culminates in a mutual web that creates, as we find out over the
course of the novel through their bitter marriage, an increasingly terrifying interlocking web. The
evolution of the metaphor reveals that there is something far more interesting at work in this
labor of weaving. Hence it is that the narrator rhapsodizes:
Young love-makingthat gossamer web! Even the points it clings to---the things whence
its subtle interlacings are swungare scarcely perceptible; momentary touches of fingertips, meetings of rays from blue and dark orbs, unfinished phrases, lightest changes of
cheek and lip, faintest tremors. The web itself is made of spontaneous beliefs and
indefinable joys, yearnings of one life towards another, visions of completeness,
indefinite trust. (380)
There is a real scientific knowledge buried within this figurative construction. That the web is
but a metaphor is clearand in the usual mode of the narrator, the leap is made quite clear
between the architecture of the web and the things that compose and decompose it: the slightest
indications of human behaviors and inclinations. Those pillars to which it is appended in order to

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hang, too, are rendered clear by the unfolding of the metaphor. The web flutters and flaps when
disturbed by the slightest developments in the expected activity of the other. So it is that
Casaubons web is buffeted by the very materials out of which it is built: To all the facts which
he knew, he added imaginary facts both present and future which became more real to him than
those, because they called up a stronger dislike, a more predominating bitterness. Suspicion and
jealousy of Will Ladislaws intentions, suspicion and jealousy of Dorotheas impressions, were
constantly at their weaving work (456). Lydgate, Rosamond, and Casaubon all participate in the
presumptions of the reader, that they are the center of the world as they know it to be
constructed. But by carefully explaining the constitutive elements of the web in these passages
that they are built up of not just facts but fancies, these latter constructed out of strong, negative
affectsthe narrator is pointing out the uncertainty of truth as we, the reader, may have come
to understand it. In this latter passagewherein Casaubons jealousy and suspicion do the work
of weavingwe come to a fuller understanding of Spinozas distinction between adequate and
inadequate ideas. Inadequate ideas are those which are bound by ideas which we wish to have or
wish to be true, because of the engine of ouregoistic desire.
The problem with the web metaphors as they appear in these early incarnations is that
they are resolutely two-dimensional. Like an archetypal spiders web, they are hung on a
relatively level plane: as in the example that illustrates Lydgate and Rosamonds mutual web, the
various elements are parallel and equivalentthere is no hierarchy among unfinished phrases
and faintest tremors. The two-dimensional web is also what permits the establishment of a
stable and singular center. As in egoistic thinking, however, such webs are flat, shallow,
superficial. They can be buffeted and disturbed, tweaked, warped and unsettled.

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As common as these metaphoric images arethe pier-glasss optics, the webs egoistic
centerthey are nevertheless likewise novel. They describe impingement and totality while
implicating subjectivity and egoism. They are both figures that seek to describe totality but also
to preclude knowledge of that totality; they are simultaneously pragmatic and frustrating.
Supplementary to describing interconnection, they nevertheless highlight the chauvinism of the
image, and critique the objective aspirations of science. The strongest statement of this
critiquethis is a parableunderscores the didactic impulse of the image, a caution to us
readers to avoid the pitfalls of any belief in first, our own centrality to the operation of the
natural universe (a caution leveled perhaps most keenly at anti-Darwinian scientists) and second,
against any hubris that we can know the entirety of the larger web, whose borders are only ever
hinted at, and which we can never fully know. The web escapes our own spinning: any web of
our own construction is inherently limited by the very limitations of our own subjectivity; any
web worth studying exceeds these boundaries in limitless directionality. George Eliots implied
knowledge of this is reflected in her subtitle to the novelA Study of Provincial Life. Critics
who make a habit of critiquing George Eliots own political and historical limitations, who speak
of her disappointingly tight focus or the modesty of her political agendasmiss the ways in
which this educative metaphor of the web highlight George Eliots self-conscious knowledge of
the limitations of the novel as a form. The novel can only contain so much; for the novel to
succeed in doing anything, it must, disappointingly, constrain the boundaries which compose its
outer edges. We may remain hopeful, however, as Zadie Smith is, that future novelists can
inherit and preserve from George Eliot the radical freedom to push the novels form to its
limits, wherever they may be (41, emphasis added).

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It is thusly the metaphor is invoked in an altered form in Bulstrodes Christian musings:


In his closest meditations the life-long habit of Mr. Bulstrodes mind clad his most egoistic
terrors in doctrinal references to superhuman ends. But even while we are talking and meditating
about the earths orbit and the solar system, what we feel and adjust our movements to is the
stable earth and the changing day (570). Our egoismthe central mechanism of the web
metaphoris such that, in Bulstrodes case, deeply involved with his own hypocritical brand of
Chrisitianity, we willfully ignore the nature of the solar system as it actually is, preferring instead
to revert to an outdated paradigm of earths centrality. We know that the sun is the center of our
universebut we nevertheless act on the principle that it is the earth that is the stable center. As
Smith remarks, George Eliot, like the other successful nineteenth-century novelists, had to be
able to access this organic relationship between what one felt one knew of human behavior and
what one knew one felt (40). In invoking the solar system, George Eliot is invoking a principle
of dimensionality to the web metaphorgone is the two-dimensional plane; in its place is a
complicated and vast system that exceeds our observation obviously. The plane which we
construct and move along from fixed, egoistic points, and in which we serve as the center, is
obliterated in the face of celestial bodies to whose movements we must, logically submit, though
to which we, in practice, refuse to capitulate. The dimensionality of the solar systemits orbits
and interlocking planes, the illusion of the earths stability, the vast distances only intelligibly
rendered to the human eye through the telescopethrows the web expansively into three
dimensions. So it is that the ethical moral of the proliferating equivalent centres of self admits
of the universes proliferation of galaxies, each operating in its stellar centrality, spinning around
each other in a manner which the Victorian scientists, at least, did not know.

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George Eliot is urging a paradigm shift in her invocation of astronomy. We must make
the leap from the familiar and falliblea belief that we are the center of the universe, the center
of the natural worldto a belief that is profoundly disorienting: that we cannot even know the
boundaries of this world, nor have any stable knowledge of our place within it. This change to
our orientation must be as profound as the paradigm shift that allowed us, through the
intervention of Copernicus and Galileo, to abandon the idea of the earth as the center of the
universe for the accurate knowledge of the sun as the center. But what remains, as in the
metaphor of the web, is the web, the universe. The change of the perspective doesnt alter the
fact of the larger, totalizing system, imaged in its various ways. Nor does the shift in
comprehension mean that the universe operates any differentlythe planets always did and will
orbit the sunit is just that we now have a more accurate understanding of that fact. This
accuracy, alienating and disturbing as it is, signals our entre into blessedness, the intuitive
knowledge of the world as immanent, affected and affecting, as Spinoza describes; our more
perfect knowledge is only attained through the relentless pursuit of true, adequate knowledge. In
the mechanisms of the novel, it is the narrators frequent interjections, clarifications, repetitions
and injunctions, couched in scientific discourse (the otherwise illusorily-objective pursuit of
truth) that permits the reader to come to an improved understanding. That this is done through
the deployment of metaphor is crucial because, after all, immanence itself is always
metaphorical. So long as we seek to know God, we can only approximate and approach Gods
knowledge; we are finite, fallible manifestations of God, and have nothing of his perfection. As
such, we will never perfectly know the true workings of the universe, though we should always
aspire to that receding, asymptotic knowledge.

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Spinoza pragmatically admits from the vantage point of the seventeenth century, that no
one has yet determined what a body can do from the laws of Nature alone, that is, no one has yet
taught anyone what the body can do from the laws of Nature alone (Ethics III.P2s). In a milieu
in which scientific knowledge was voraciously expanding, and the very nature of the most basic
questions were under substantial investigation, Spinozas admission rings true. This moment in
Spinoza is critical, because it admits that further investigation of the body will yield further
insight into the operation of the material world without fundamentally changing his hypothesis.
Spinozas philosophy is somewhat timeless in this manner: instead of rigorously grounding his
philosophy in what was known at the time of its composition, he builds in the admission of
uncertainty in order to craft a philosophy of the natural world (or God) that can flex around
developing knowledge.48
In his concluding remarks on Spinoza in his Fortnightly Review article, Lewes dwells at
length on the reputation Spinoza had for a fascination with spiders. Lewess account is gentle,
and lends credence to the omnipresence of the spider-web imagery in George Eliots work. The
children all loved [Spinoza], and for them he would bring one of his lenses to show them the
spiders magnified. It was his amusement to watch insects. The sight of spiders fighting would
make the tears roll down his cheeks with laughter; a trait which Dugald Stewart thinks very
decidedly indicates a tendency to insanity; and satisfactorily accounts for the horrible doctrines
of Spinozism. Hamann sees in it only the sympathy of one web-spinner for another: His taste
betrays itself in a mode of thought which only insects can thus entangle. Spiders and their

48

Peter Dears ruminations on the development of science is telling: When we look back over the history of
science, we do not see the clear, progressive development of a single picture of what the world is like, of what kinds
of things it contains and the ways by which they interact. Instead, we see a picture that changes constantly in many
of its most prominent features (4). Science, though weve come to accept it in the twenty-first century as a
relatively coherent field consisting of recognizable disciplines, has never been fully coherent, and Dears book is an
examination of the points in its development where uneasy transitions have occurred between paradigms.

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admirer Spinoza naturally take to the geometric style of building (406). Feuerbach, too,
relishes the example of the spider. He muses in The Essence of Religion that The spider does
not see what you see; all the separations, differences and distances [in her web] which, or at least
such as your intellectual eye perceives them, does not at all exist for it (53). Thus the figure of
the web is precisely a figurefor the spider it is merely a means to an end that is self-supporting.
And animals, although they cannot achieve consciousness, do however strive for selfpreservation, according to Spinoza, which may account for his fascination with watching spider
fights. But this figure of a web nevertheless works to demonstrate a proposition about the nature
of Nature: Nature works and produces everywhere only in and with connectiona connection
which is reason for man, for wherever he perceives connection, he finds sense, material for the
thinkingBut also the necessity of Nature is no human, i. e. no logical, metaphysical or
mathematical, in general no abstracted one; for natural beings are no creatures of thought, no
logical or mathematical figures, but real, sensual, individual beings (55). George Eliots narrator
is like the human in Feuerbachs formulation; he stands outside of the whole of nature and
comments upon its seeming patterns and constitution, but in doing so, ascribes a logic to a
Nature that works according to its own self-preserving logic. For Feuerbach, this ascription of
pattern to Nature is inadequate. Nature generally can be understood only through herselfshe
alone cannot be measured [shades of Spinozas intensive, infinite immanence] with any human
measure, although we compare and designate her manifestations with analogous human
manifestations in order to make them intelligible for us (55). Accordingly, the web becomes a
metaphor, for we are obliged, in accordance with the nature of our language, which is founded
only upon the subjective appearance of things (55-56). But for Spinoza, such ascriptions can
potentially be (although we cannot know, not having attained perfection) the accurate and

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adequate description of immanenceand this is the aspiration of the natural philosopher or


scientist.
The narrator is a scientistwe are all scientistsin that the observation performed on
and of others within the confines of the novel yields important data about psychology and the
human mind. Science, after all, and it bears repeating, instead of proclaiming the nothingness of
this life, the worthlessness of human love, and the imbecility of the human mind, it [science] will
proclaim the supreme importance of this life, the supreme value of human love, and the grandeur
of human intellect (Lewes, Problems Vol. 1, 3). And Middlemarchin seeking to enlarge our
sympathy, and to insist on our inescapable interdependence, and the impossibility of knowing the
fullest extent of the immanent worldseeks to teach us this by doing these very things. There is
no loftier goal for literature, but it is clear that George Eliot attempts and, if we take the enduring
success of the novel into account, succeeds in this goal.

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CHAPTER TWO: HOW TO HEAR A SQUIRRELS HEARTBEAT (AND WHY YOU MIGHT WANT
TO )

I heartily respond to your wish that our literary intercourse may continuefor that wish includes
many good things. It means that I shall go on writing what will stir mens hearts to sympathy1
And the inspiring principle which alone gives me courage to write is, that of so presenting our
human life as to help my readers in getting a clearer conception and a more active admiration of
those vital elements which bind men together and give a higher worthiness to their existence.2
It is my function as an artist to act (if possible) for good on the emotions and conceptions of my
fellow-men.3

George Eliot wants to educate our sympathy, a phrase which speaks to a dense cluster of
aims and intents that are reflected frequently in her nonfiction, her letters, her diary, and her
novels. She wants to sit us down as readers, and, through the force of her philosophical clarity
and the coherence of her philosophical commitments, as well as through the imagined actions
and interactions of her characters, teach us how to enlarge our sympathy.4 Ultimately, for George
Eliot, sympathy is the central affect to the realist novel, and sympathy as a philosophical concept
grows out of her translations of Strauss, Feuerbach and Spinoza, and her dialogue with
nineteenth-century German materialist philosophy. Sympathy speaks to her commitments to

The George Eliot Letters, Volume 2. Letter to John Blackwood, June 16, 1857. P. 353
Ibid., Volume 4. Letter to Clifford Allbutt, August 1866. P. 472
3
Ibid., Volume 6, Letter to Haim Guedalla, October 2, 1876. P. 289
4
Carolyn Betensky argues that George Eliot, like Gaskell as other Victorian novelists, is participating in a larger
generic mode of novels of instruction, inaugurated, in some ways, by Richardson before her, and reaching their crest
with the novels of the American, Harriet Beecher Stowe.
2

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ethicsas opposed to theology, dogma, or moralitythat developed over the course of her
translations, and is conveyed throughout her novels.
What sympathy is and isnt for George Eliot is a well-trodden question. I make the argument
that sympathy is ultimately to be considered in two dimensionsits invocation and dependence
upon a framework of affect, and its centrality to a consideration of ethical philosophy.
Ultimately, George Eliots desire to educate our sympathies is grounded in the secular
philosophy of materialism elaborated by Strauss and Feuerbach (and later elaborated by Marx) as
species-being, a version of materialist immanence that Plekhanov and others argue owes much to
Spinozas crypto-metaphysical conception of immanence, as well as to nineteenth-century
scientific theories of organicism and the organic whole. Sympathy as an affect that necessitates
education is reflected in many foundational scenes in her novels, and these scenes contained
within the novels formally replicate the conversation she aspires to engender between her novels
and the readers of her novels. Ultimately, sympathy in George Eliots novels is about a
decentered, radically generous phenomenological availability to proliferating othersit is, in the
best form, the ability to see the grass grow, to hear the squirrels heartbeat, and to recognize
the many equivalent centres of self.
George Eliot struggled for the duration of her life against the dogmatic, the narrow-minded
and the provincial. This struggle is most apparent in the fact that George Eliot, though once
enamored with the Evangelical principles imbibed during her formative school years, gradually
turned away from those religious commitments in light of the influence of intellectuals around
her (Dr. Brabant, the Brays, Herbert Spencer) toward a compassionate skepticism, reflected best,
perhaps, in the choice of the materials she translated. Thus, in a letter, she wistfully reflects that
her function [as a novelist] is that of the aesthetic, not the doctrinal teacherthe rousing of the

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nobler emotions, which make mankind desire the social right, not the prescribing of special
measures, concerning which the artistic mind, however strongly moved by social sympathy, is
often not the best judge. It is one thing to feel keenly for ones fellow-beings; another to say,
This step, and this alone, will be the best to take for the removal of particular calamities (GEL
VII 44). George Eliot refuses to prescribe, and instead liberally promises to educate and re-orient
the reader to feel without the interpolation of faith or belief, or the too-easy tendency toward
preaching or prescription.5 George Eliot does not aspire to declaim or hold forthshe condemns
the liberties and presumption of Cummings for doing so; his prose is slippery and lax (Essays
173) and he lacks any demarcation between fact and rhetoric (172). He is, at best, a man with
moderate intellect, a moral standard not higher than the average, some rhetorical affluence and
great glibness of speech (159) whose natural career, she sardonically notes, should be an
evangelical preacher, for as such, he will then find it possible to reconcile small ability with
great ambition, superficial knowledge with the prestige of erudition, a middle morale with a high
reputation for sanctity (160). These preachers are dangerous for precisely these reasons: they
prescribe specific actions on the basis of a terrifically incomplete knowledge and an unethical
egoism. Instead, in her novels, George Eliot seeks to incite, to open up, to orient, and to avoid the
programmatic and prescriptive. The difference, then, between the aesthetic and the doctrinal is
crucial to a consideration of George Eliots novels. Doctrine invokes dogma, theology,
religion, and morality. George Eliots rejection of this term set accords with her translations of
Strauss, Feuerbach, and Spinoza. At issue is the materialist rejection of the anthropomorphic
5

This brings to mind what Gordon Haight describes as George Eliots Holy War, the period in which she
reformulated her religious beliefs, and, for a time, refused to attend church with her father. This was the center of a
significant break in family relationships that, in addition to her life with Lewes, instigated her ostracism from her
beloved brother Isaac (Haight 32-67). At heart, perhaps, is her enthusiastic adoption of an ethical philosophy as
opposed to a moral philosophy; aside from the doctrinal or theist implications of morality, the register of ethics
removes such terms as imperative, necessity, ought, should. After all, as she points out in Middlemarch, most of us
walk about well-wadded with stupidity.

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egoism of religion, mans projection of himself as a God outside of himself. Replacing it is the
certitude that man is formed by his social and pragmatic, material life; this is central to George
Eliots endorsement of scriptural skepticism and her prescription of a humanist ethics. She
invokes here a sense of a social right, not a moral or religious right, nor a slide into the discourse
of virtue; rather, she claims that an ethical orientation toward others does not depend upon
scripture. This ethics is predicated on the ability to feel keenly, an echo of the Spinoza with
which she was so familiar; the road to enlightenment through her novels is couched in the
readers ability to orient themselves toward others, not in the primacy of a particular affect, like
the religiously-freighted pity or compassion, or the socio-affective complex of charity.6
All of these allied concepts typically subsumed under the heading of sympathy are
freighted with social and ideological baggage largely anathema to George Eliot. Sympathy for
her is a far more nuanced thing, a more objective (-seeming) affect that does not imply the
weight of judgment or the motivation of the acknowledgement of hierarchized difference, as
pity, compassion, or charity do. These affects depend upon the recognition of the self as
inherently different from, and usually implicitly superior to, the receivers of sympathy.7 George
Eliots sympathy requires an egalitarian acknowledgement of difference without reference to
superiority, a base-level recognition of the sympathized-with as, as she puts it in Middlemarch,
an equivalent center of self (243). George Eliots materialism rejects the moral sophistries of
religion (by way of the critique of the egoistic and projective anthropomorphism of religion
6

To think through other Victorian novelists along these lines, it quickly becomes clear that, for instance, Gaskell
and Dickens are clearly motivated by the ideal of charity; one only has to think of, as Audrey Jaffe points out, the
charitable interventions in Hard Times and Mary Barton that yield narrative resolution and inform the novels
impact on the reader (15). Likewise, one cannot help but read Anne Brontes novels without feeling the deep
investment the novelist has in the invocation of the readers pity for her trod-upon heroines; Agnes Grey is nothing if
not a meditation on the Christian concept of pity.
7
Indeed, Jaffes entire construct of sympathy is as a symbolic mode of economic exchange, one that entrenches the
sympathizing subject behind the self-protective awareness of ones bourgeois position. This is central to her reading
of sympathy as an essentially Smithian concept, built upon Adam Smiths moral philosophy that is, itself, an
extension and interlocutor to his elaboration of the dynamics of capitalism.

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couched in Feuerbachs writing) and the philosophical idealism of Kant, which recommends a
universalizing moral principle located in mans self-referential reasoning, or of Hegel, which
rejects the material other as an interiorized, immaterial tool for the realization of selfconsciousness through the mechanism of the dialectic.
All of this is to say that if the normative moral philosophy (for the nineteenth century) is
Kants categorical imperative,that in considering doing anything, one must judge whether or
not such an action would be best for everyone, both in the effect that it has on others, and
whether or not it is a universally suitable action to be taken by each individualthen George
Eliot moves beyond this moral idealism. The categorical imperative is inimical to George Eliots
adoption of a humanist ethics that is grounded in the coequal material immanence of subjects as
modes of a singular substance (within immanence). While Spinoza would not necessarily reject
out of hand Kants formulation of the categorical imperative, it does rest on what would be, for
Spinoza, the unknowable. And, after all, every man contains both rules and exceptions, as she
explains in reference to Adam Bede (384). To prescribe a singular right action is to neglect the
registers of each individuals varying self-knowledge. Clearly echoing Spinozas ethics of
affects, she explains in Adam Bede that Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our
deeds; and until we know what has been or will be the inward facts, which constitutes a mans
critical actions, it we will be better not to think ourselves wise about his character (342). To
judge of the ethical efficacy of an individuals choices would be mistaken, for what appears right
at the time of an individuals decision may later turn out to be quite wrong: the second wrong
presents itself to him in the guise of the only practicable right (342).8 While Spinoza argues that

The Spinozist corollary to this is found in the introduction to the fourth section of the EthicsOn Human
Bondagewherein he explains that Mans lack of power to moderate and restrain the affects I call bondage. For
the man who is subject to affects [that is, all men] is under the control, not of himself, but of fortune, in whose
power he so greatly is that often, though he sees the better for himself, he is still forced to follow the worse.

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the world is materially, naturally, deistically immanent, and thus all that is produced in it is
produced of it, and that Reason ultimately governs our knowledge of ithe would resist the
claim that there is a transcendent principle by which all could or should operate. Spinoza
pragmatically (and probably heretically) points out that If we read a book which contains
incredible or impossible narratives, or is written in a very obscure style, and if we know nothing
of its author, nor of the time or occasion of its being written, we shall vainly endeavor to gain
any certain knowledge of its true meaningI think this must be tolerably evident to all (TTP
111). Strauss, advocating rationalism, likewise explains that any clergyman or theologian who
seeks after truthfor him, the ultimate goalwould be enjoined to give up the office of faith
(Vol. 3, 443-444). Spinoza explains that The sphere of reason is, as we have said, truth and
wisdom; the sphere of theology is piety and obedience (TTP 194), but that if we were to regard
its precepts or rules of life, we may find it in accordance with reason (TTP 195). Strauss
acknowledges that the capitulation of the theologian to reason is unlikely, but that the best work
is nevertheless the most difficult, and there are a few, who notwithstanding such attacks [from
those retrenching behind blind faith], freely declare what can no longer be concealed (Vol. 3,
446)that the words of Scripture are false, insofar as rational truth is concerned, although he,
like Spinoza, admits there is much to be gained from an ethical reading of the Scriptures at the
level of language. After all, Spinoza explains, the corner-stone of Scripture is to love God
above all things, and ones neighbor as ones self, and that without such a foundation, the Bible
would not be worth considering at all (TTP 172).
Setting scriptural quibbles aside and transitioning back into the realm of philosophy
proper, under the rubric of materialism, individual subjects are limited to the knowledge of
themselves, even as they may also recognize commonalities in and among others. Contrary to

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Kants idealist morality, the materialist argument is that we as subjects cannot presume to know
the other to the extent that we could prescribe what is best for themwe can only know what is
best for ourselves, and through a deepening knowledge of the self coupled with a studied
knowledge of others, we may be able to imagine what is best for others.9 George Eliot feels this
conundrum keenly: if one considers even superficially her novels, they are filled with characters
who fail to take into consideration the actions that would best benefit both themselves and others.
Rosamond, in spite of the sympathetic intervention of Dorothea, never manages to transcend her
essential egoism and drives Lydgate to an early death; Tito Melema cruelly adheres to his
relentless ambition, sacrificing all others who stand in his way: there is no redemption or change
for him.
9

Miller provides a canny gloss on the issues circumscribed by any faithful adherence to Kants ethics in The Ethics
of Reading.
To choose Kant, so it seems, is to commit onself at the outset to a certain theory of ethics among others,
one that is voluntaristic and subjectivistic, but at the same time reaffirms the category of duty and those
highest values of renunciation and disinterred service which are inherited from Stoicism, on the one hand,
but are on the other hand inseparable from Christianity and especially important in Protestantism. In spite
of Kants pretense of magisterial objectivity and universality he ends up reaffirming just the morality of his
country, class, religion and time. This comedy is nowhere more likely to be played out than in ethical
theory. (13)
Of course, to be fair, his indictment of Kantthat his thought is deeply indebted to the ideological forces that
compose his particular moment of history, and his orientation within that momentis something that has to be
considered of any thinker or writer, especially George Eliot. The interpenetration of the various elements
Protestantism, especiallycolors ethical theory more than elsewhere in the ethical pretense of magisterial
objectivity. George Eliots particular qualms with Kant are also well-summarized by Miller:
Though it is not a question here of direct influence, the best shorthand description of what Eliot rejects
would give it the proper name Immanuel Kant. It was by no means necessary to know Kants works in
order to be a Kantian or an anti-Kantian in the nineteenth century, nor is it so in our own day. Kant in the
Critique of Judgment codified a set of notions about art which is one of the constants of the Western
tradition. The genius, according to Kant, imitates nature not by copying it, but by duplicating its manner of
production. As God spoke nature into existence by means of the divine word and by means of his Son, the
Word, so the genius, by virtue of a power given him by nature, speaks into existence a heterocosm which
adds something hitherto unheard-of into nature. It adds the plus value of a new beauty which is beyond
price. This new beauty is beyond measure by any slavish standards of mirroring correspondence to things
as they are. The novel beauty the genius creates is grounded in the analogy between his logos and the
divine logos. This analogy is based in nature or goes by way of nature, though only because nature is the
word of God, a voice made into substantial things. Analogy, as the word suggests, is always a similarity in
voices or in words. This Kantism George Eliot rejects. (66-67)
Kants Protestantism, his dogma, his ethical interpretation of doctrinal imperatives (the Golden Rule) are what
George Eliot works against, no less than against his elevation of the sublime and the beautiful (which also so
permeate Burke). George Eliots adherence to a fidelity to the ugly, stupid and inconsistent constitutes George
Eliots counter-aesthetic embedded within her materialist, aesthetic ethics (70).

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Therefore, in George Eliots novels there is no injunction to act morally as there is no


corollary belief in an arbitrative and transcendent God. As God is the egoistic projection of the
self, per Strauss and Feuerbach, and through Spinoza, merely the substitutive name we give an
immanent Nature, it becomes clear that any philosophy of right action must be generated out of
humans and human experience, and understood thusly. This may ultimately appear to be egoistic
and self-centered, but it is, if nothing else, eminently pragmatic. This self-centeredness is selfinterested, and not selfish, if the distinction can be made with sufficient clarity; though the self
strives (through the mechanism of conatus) to perpetuate itself, it optimally does so with an eye
to the striving of others to do the same, and the recognition of the other as necessary to the
perpetuation of the self. One cannot get around others, one cannot hold them at a distance for
long: Spinozas ethics does not propose a self that can thrive in a vacuum, but one that, as
Feuerbach and Strauss elaborate, depends upon the presence of others.
This is at the heart of George Eliots crucial departure from the moral philosophy of
Adam Smith.10 Adam Smith makes sympathy the cornerstone of his moral philosophy of affect.
In this formulation, sympathy is such a foundational affect because it instantiates what he takes
to be the central mode of affective exchange. Sympathy requires two feeling subjects; its labor
consists of the subject who feels sympathy for the other does so by imagining what the other is
feeling by projecting oneself into a remembered or cognate instance, and experiencing ones
approximation of that suffering with reference to that projected self, not the other. I would argue
that Smiths projective-identification model of sympathy, victim as it always is to the feeling
10

Imraan Coovadia makes the tenuous argument that Smiths The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of
Nations would have been familiar to George Eliot early in her career, belonging as they did to the ordinary cultural
competence of a nineteenth-century intellectual (819). Obviously reductive, Coovadia is working around the
conspicuous lack of mention of Adam Smiths works in any of George Eliots writings, but nevertheless insisting on
the diffused and pervasive intellectual presence of Smiths ideas in nineteenth-century Britain. Anna Kornbluh, in
the essay The Economic Problem of Sympathy: Parabasis, Interest, and Realist form in Middlemarch, in ELH,
argues much the same thing for the inescapability of the terminology of political economy, and the pervasive hold
Smiths work had in the nineteenth century.

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subjects judgment of the others position and feeling, is essentially tied to the realm of
morality.11 Likewise, Smiths project depends on the psychological labor of projection, which
requires a doubling and displacement of the self, and also requires consciousness of this labor. If
we know nothing from more contemporary psychological accounts of projection, its that the
projecting subject rarely recognizes that such an activity is occurring. Projection is most
frequently a self-defensive mechanism by which the projecting subject is attempting to retrench
behind his notion of himself against the appearance of a threat to that sense of self. Smiths use
of projection in his formulation of sympathy ultimately devolves into a version of Hobbesian
self-defensive self-interest, itself a philosophical bulwark in accounts of capitalism (including
Smiths own). Even when one is sympathizing with another, one is doing so only by ultimately
feeling for oneself, and any likeness that that sympathy might have with the suffering of the
other, it ultimately does not abut or echo that suffering. Thus, any affective exchange that has
two subjects (and all do, in Smiths formulation) deploys sympathy, albeit modulated or
mitigated in some form or another, as the mode of exchange. This idea that all affective
experiences are grounded in the presence of another feeling (human) subject runs counter to
Spinozas Ethics, which pragmatically acknowledges that because the affects are rooted in the
sensory experiences of the body, they are not dependent upon the presence of an external, feeling
subject.12 They can arise, and often do, at the instigation of imagined objects, situations,
memories, ideas, other feelings, all material in immanence. Smith acutely recognizes the fact that
no subject can feel as another feels, a model of impossible identification, but no rational thinker
11

I should feel pity for the suffering character because his suffering is justly a response to the circumstances he has
gotten himself into by no fault of his own is a formulation of positive Smithian sympathy. A negative formulation of
it may be as follows: in spite of the fact that the character is suffering, I feel absolutely no sympathy for her because
she has violated a moral code that has in turn wrought such suffering upon her as a retributive action.
12
Jane Bennett, in her 2010 book Vibrant Matter, although not explicitly Spinozist, makes some very compelling
arguments for the affective capacities of non-human actors (like, for instance weather, and the economy). The
imbuing of affective capabilities to those forces that traditionally lack agency is very much in accordance with
Spinozas immanence.

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would argue for the absolute identity of affective states in different subjects.13 As Ellen Argyros
bemoans, The primary epistemological and aesthetic problem of sympathy concerns the literal
impossibility of transcending the boundaries of ones self (of ones physical body and ones
egoistic desires) and entering into the consciousness and pain of another. One can only imagine
what another is thinking or feeling; others are mysterious and opaque, sometimes even to
themselves (4).
A clear example of the failure of (what we might now call) empathy in George Eliots
novels is the misguided labor of Dinah Morris.14 She sees empathy as a vocationand to that
end, relentlessly pursues this ideal, unaware that it is an ideal. Knowing what we know of
George Eliots biographythat she rejected the Evangelicalism that she once so whole-heartedly
adopted in her youth, and that she, prior to the composition of the novels, had immersed herself
in translations of German materialismit is hard not to look at the character of Dinah Morris
skeptically. Although Dinah is ultimately good, her ethical maturation only comes when she
abandons the vocation to preach. Before, she suffers from woefully misguided fantasies that she
could quite literally share the pain of others; she explains in her letter to Seth Bede that My
heart is knit to your aged mother since it was granted me to be near her in the day of trouble
(357). She sees her preaching as a means to experiencenot even quite vicariously, but as if she
felt it, too, vis--vis the intercession of the figure of Jesusothers pain. In reflection, basking in
the inward light, the very hardship, and the sorrow, and the blindness, and the sin, I have
beheld and been ready to weep over, -- yea, all the anguish of the children of men-- I can bear
13

Rae Greiner, making a case for the validity and importance of Smiths account of sympathy, makes the argument
that For Smith, as for the realists, sympathy trades knowledge, identification, and reference for will, dissimilarity,
and harmony, desiring not emotional unisons, but concords . . . and this is all that is wanted or required (23).
But this basic acknowledgement of difference is not sufficient for a lasting theory of affective exchange, and though
it may read as a compelling rationale for the development of realism as a generic mode, it fails to recognize the
egoism and displacement present in Smiths account.
14
Empathy as a term did not come into circulation until the twentieth century, as the OED notes.

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with a willing pain, as if I was sharing the Redeemers cross. For I feel it, I feel itinfinite love
is suffering, too (357). It is such a personal morality grounded in the transmutation of others
suffering into Christs sufferingand thus, by the transitive power, into the suffering of a
faithful believerthat serves as a nineteenth-century Protestant model of empathy. Dinahs
investment in this belief is what leads her to ride toward the gallows with Hetty Poyser, in a
move that rather selfishly makes of her impending hanging a greater spectacle than it need be
(All Stoniton, after all, had heard of Dinah Morris, and there was as much eagerness to see
her as to the see the wretched Hetty). The sham performance of Dinah Morris in the
culminating tableau of the scenewherein she and Hetty clasped each other in mutual horror,
comes under subtle scrutiny by George Eliot in this scene; it is revealed to be the idealistic, sadomasochistic gesture it really is (502). Dinah seeks to suffer under the yoke of others sorrows, but
she likewise thrives like a succubus in witnessing, and even inflicting, those very sorrows (one
thinks here of Dinahs introductory sermon, wherein Chads Bess is humiliated and debased in
front of the gathered crowd for the presumptuous vanity of her earrings).
Warren Montag develops an innovative reading of Adam Smiths version of sympathy
that is traced back through the mechanism of Spinozas concept of imagination. Montag glosses
Adam Smiths sympathy as not crossing the boundary between me and the other because as
noted, Smith believes that we can never know what or even if another person feels (668).
Montag adheres to Spinozist immanence in his claim of the continuity between the affect and the
self and its persistencenot reduplication. So whereas Smith involves the projective
approximate doubling of anothers affect in the space of the displaced projective self, Spinoza
argues that the existence of the affect is part of what Deleuze calls the plane of immanence.
The geometrical-topographical metaphor is never more pertinent when it describes co-existence

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and extension: The affect thus is not contained in me or the other but lies between us (Montag
668; emphasis added); the presence of the feeling of the others affect by myself is a perpetuation
and persistence of the same affect as a connective force between the two actors. This brings us
to what Montag labels transindividuation, through which an affect persists in spite of being
registered by multiple subjectswhat Montag remarks is a model of contagion. Affects
require more than one subject; the subject can affect or be affected by other objects, ideas,
thoughts, etc., but the dynamics of affect require two participants. As Teresa Brennan puts it,
when one theorizes the transmission of affect, the emotions of two are not the same as the
emotions of one plus one (51). There is no clear demarcation between the emotion of one
subject and that of another, when the emotion, or affect, is understood to be common, as in the
process of sympathy.15 Affects, opposed to emotions, a distinction that Brennan makes in the
argument that affects require cognition, emotions do not, appear in theorizations as identifiable
and archetypal. Spinoza appends a glossary of the affects to his Ethics; Silvan Tomkins boils
down the affects to a series of archetypal building blocks.
So the successful manifestation of sympathy is, in this model, having-been-reorientated,
the state of generous openness to the possibility of the other. Montag queries: if affect itself can
be communicated, what of a singularitys conatusher desire, her striving, to persist? If desire
is the consciousness of the conatus and I share a desire with another person, do I share the
conatus of which the desire is the expression? (669) In other words, can the transitive property
(the algebraic terminology would, I think, please Spinoza) apply to conatus as it does to affect?
15

Teresa Brennan places much emphasis on the contagion model of the transmission of affect, primarily in
reference to the description of the therapeutic group environment. Steeped in new developments in science
(pheromones, neural pathways, etc.), Brennan argues that affects are communicated in ways that escape our
conscious knowledge, but which ably register in the body. Of course, such an explanation is interesting, but of
limited use to literary readings, which presuppose not the physical presence of another body, but the imagination of
that presence; in this case, Spinoza offers, through the framework of the imagination, a much more important
rubric for reading the presence of affect and its effects in text.

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In other words, Montag paraphrases, what would allow us to be thought of as separate


individuals rather than as part of a singular thing whose conatus (and therefore interest) is
expressed in us both? Nothing at all: When two individuals of the same nature are combined,
they compose an individual twice as powerful as each one singly (Ethics 4.18S) (669). Though
Montag is interested in this combination as an expression of the political potential of Spinozas
multitude, its implications as a reading of sympathy are as potent. When any two subjects are
sympathetic, the boundary between the self and the other are obliterated insofar as they share a
conatus; the identity of the conatus is a realization of immanence, which unseats the typical
egoism any subject feels.
George Eliots materialism requires the presence of othersimagined or real. One of the
innovations offered by Strauss, in addition to his biblical debunking, is his permutation of
Hegelian idealism into a more material and pragmatic plane of analysis through his introduction
of the concept of the species.
When thought of as belonging to an individual, a God-man, the qualities and function that
the teaching of the Church attributes to Christ are contradictory, but in the species they
live in harmony. Humanity is the unity of both natures, finite spirit remembering its
infinity. It is Humanity that dies, rises, and ascends to heaven, for from the negation of its
phenomenal life there ever proceeds a higher spiritual life; from the suppression of its
mortality as a personal, national, and terrestrial spirit, arises its union with the infinite
spirit of the heavens. By faith in this Christ, especially in his death and resurrection, man
is justified before God: that is, by the kindling within him of the idea of Humanity, the
individual man participates in the divinely human life of the species. (Strauss, Vol. 3,
438).

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Preparing the path for Feuerbach, Strauss argues at the end of his epic tract that ultimately the
Bible is a representation of the possibility of human life through reciprocally-phenomenological,
projective activity of religion. Feuerbach borrows the term species for his insistence that the
idealist Hegelian dialectic, which establishes the self as a process of interiorized oscillations
between subjects and objects in the gradual culmination of Absolute Spirit, is mistaken in its
abstraction and immateriality. Feuerbach, following Strauss, insists that there is nothing more
than the material worldand that the lofty motives which we collate under the heading of
religious and moral activity as prescribed by the Bible are nothing more than an obfuscation of
the ethical imperative we have to each other as humans, as co-species-beings. As such, the self is
established not through an intellectual process grounded in abstractions, but rather through selfconstituting material and sensuous activity. All of this is encapsulated in the ahistorical notion of
the species beingthe sense of an immanent, collective and communal nature of humans based
in a scientific, anthropological understanding of the development of the species. Species being
exists before the rigorous demarcation of society into class, and it is species being to which we
must return if we are to seek an irreligious ethics of interdependence.16
Sympathy for George Eliot, then, is a synthesis of the Spinozist material immanence and
Feuerbachs insistence on the phenomenological encounter between subjects. For George Eliot,
sympathy, in its most developed sense, is about radical phenomenological orientation: it is the
recognition that one is not alone, that one is always surrounded by other centres of self, but not
necessarily by a specific otherbut rather, the immanent necessity of the other. Sympathy, then,
more than empathy or pity, is the ability to orient oneself generously and widely to all other

16

The notion of species being aggressively persists in young Marxs thought. Marx initially invokes the notion of
species being precisely in order to give a pre-history to the notion of history that he develops as the theoretical
engine that drives the development of capitalism. Probably precisely because the notion is ahistorical, it evaporates
in Marxs later political-economic writing.

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possible subjects. According to Argyros, sympathy, for George Eliot, is a kind of imaginative
transportation beyond the boundaries of the self and its most egoistic claim to a recognition of
the differences between self and other, ending finally with an identification between self and
other that leads one to take action on behalf of that other. Sympathy is at once a process and a
goal (1-2). It is the process of the disorientation of the self, and it is the existence of that
indiscriminate orientation. Sympathy, then, rests in the recognition of the other as that which, in
turn, ratifies and establishes the self. Setting aside the interference of externally-interposed
ideologies or beliefs, we must permit the appearance of the other without foreclosing in advance
the always-present potential for the other to allow us to come to a more refined knowledge of
ourselves. Indeed, all affective encounters in George Eliots fiction inhere this potential.
The required admission that there is anotheran object for the establishment of affect
is structurally akin to the contemporary neuro-psychologist Silvan Tomkinss description of the
affect of interest. For Tomkins, interest is the gateway affect to the joyous affectsit is
primary whereas the other positive affects are secondary. Though he remarks that interest is
different from what others have called orientation reflexes; nevertheless, interest, in
combination with these [orientation] reflexes enables the individual to sustain attention to
complex objects (Sedgwick and Frank 75). So if the orientation reflexes are merely the bodys
way of generating attention and involve the motor complexes of permitting consciousness
(linked to the circumstance of perception), interest is very much like the more philosophical
concept of phenomenological orientation, which necessitates attention to, awareness of, or
orientation towards. As Sara Ahmed derives from Franz Brentano, consciousness is intentional:
it is directed toward something.consciousness itself is directed or orientated toward objects,
which is what gives consciousness its worldly dimension (2006, 27). Interest, then, is the

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affective complex which allows for orientation toward an other; its functionis to interest the
human being in what is necessary and in what is possible for him to be interested in[;]without
interest the development of thinking and the conceptual apparatus would be seriously impaired
(Sedgwick and Frank 76-77). Interest is what permits the labor of consciousness and
imagination, and is inherently (in Spinozist terms) a joyous affect in that it increases the
bodys ability to act; indeed, this formulation of sympathy invokes it as an essentially enabling
affect, one that allows one unfettered progress toward the realization of Gods immanence, the
blessed, third kind of knowledge.17
Thus, sympathy is a complex affect that is built upon interestwhich activates an orientation
toward the other which is necessary for the operation of sympathy, the transindividuation of a
common, immanent affect existing as a connective thread between one singularity and another.
As it is an affect, it is at once a process and a goal (Argyros 2). Sympathy is both the process
by which one becomes open to and orientated toward another as a common, material, human
subject, and also the ends which that sympathy permitsthe recognition of the displacement of
the egoistic self as the center of the conscious world.
If George Eliot attacks anything, it is the citadel of the self into which we retreat, without
recourse to the presence and aid of the other. Rosamonds egoismthat which destroys her first
child when she insists on the pleasure of flirtation against her husbands more measured medical
advice, for instanceis a scathing critique of egoism. Hetty Poysers castles in the air and her
garnet earrings, too, are a version of this egoismand likewise lead to the death of her child.

17

Hetty Poysers signal failure in Adam Bede is her pathological narcissism, which construes external others as
buzzing insects that will come teasing you on a hot day when you want to be quiet (169)a fault that precipitates
her spinning in young ignorance a light web of folly and vain hopes which may [and do] one day close round her
and press upon her, a rancorous poisoned garment, changing all at once her fluttering, trivial butterfly sensations
into a life of deep human anguish (273-274). The narrator minces no words when characterizing and distilling
Hetty Poyser; Raymond Williams quite poignantly bemoans this apparent lack of sympathy for this flawed creature.

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Egoism posits the self as the center of ones universe, and the universe is far larger than that
and in an immanent world, we are undeniably interlinked and interdependent; to found a moral
philosophy on the ground of sympathy is to set the entirety of right action on the tenuous
precipice of self. Vulgarly, in such instances, reputations are crushed, babies are lost or killed,
and Lydgates brain is preyed upon by the basil plant of Rosamonds ruthless self-interest. Only
by attuning ourselves not to intensely-felt personal appetites, but expanding the breadth of ones
imaginative identification of the other can we act in such a way to ameliorate generally our
suffering and ignorance and others.
As George Eliot describes in countless statements of purpose-- in essays, in letters to friends
and readers, in various passages in her booksher engagement with writing is primarily to
educate the sympathies of her readers, to extend their ability to feel with and for other people,
even if those people are fictional and suppositious. Herein lies the power of realism for George
Eliot, the essential draw that pushes realism from a purely aesthetic program to a philosophical
mode of literary representation.
In the oft-quoted Chapter 17 of Adam Bede, George Eliot cites the truthfulness of many
Dutch paintings which took as their subject matter the lives of normal, everyday people; in
them, she find[s] 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 traffic suffering or of world-stirring actions (195).18 All of
this is, as discussed in the introduction, part and parcel of the desire to cultivate a novelistic form
that takes as its subject matter ordinary people, in contradistinction to the romantic, heroic epics
18

George Eliot acknowledges the difficulty of working on the slow and resistant English imagination in a letter to
Frederic Harrison dated August 15, 1866: Well, then, consider the sort of agonizing labor to an English-fed
imagination to make art a sufficiently real background, for the desired picture, to get breathing, individual forms,
and group them in needful relations, so that the presentation will lay hold on the emotions as human experience
will, as you say, flash conviction on the world by means of aroused sympathy. (GEL IV 300-301)

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about exceptional folk that had come before. So realism takes on an ethical imperative whose
end is the generation of sympathy for other human beings. The slippage between the fictional
human and the real human is counted upon in this version of the realist project: if the writer
succeeds like the Dutch painter in representing the generic human being in text, then that human
being should be so near the quotidian experience of the reader that the imaginative sympathy one
experiences for Amos Barton, say, or Hetty Sorrel, can be cross-applied without undue
intellectual gymnastics to the real people one knows outside of the page. This process of the
readers absorption and transference of sympathy from themselves to the non-existent character
can be fraught with difficulty; thus, the real labor and the proof of the writers efficacy is not the
projection of a moral imperative or obligation onto the actions of the characters.19 Doing so
would impose an external structure and order onto the internally represented system. As Rohan
Maitzen argues, George Eliots moral philosophy requires fictional form precisely because its
basis is that movement from our own limited perspective to the point of view of others and an
awareness of relationships and connections across a wide range of individual experiences, an
intellectual and imaginative movement that is the basis of sympathy (202). So the thru-lines
are multiple and imply the ability to identify with the immanent logic of the world of the text,
which, in George Eliots case, is also simultaneously the presentation of a coherent philosophical
19

I want here to insist on my departure from Audrey Jaffes version of sympathy in the realist novel. Thus,
contemporary readers of George Eliot and the Victorian novel miss the mark in reading her texts because of their
insistence on glossing sympathy as a mechanism of self-oriented involvement. Audrey Jaffe in Scenes of Sympathy,
ultimately argues the Smith line claiming the insistence on sympathy in terms of visualization renders Smiths
scene of sympathythe primal scene in the history of sympathetic representation and as a visual emblem of the
structure of middle-class identity (5). It is not that the pictorial parallels that George Eliot is drawing require the
projective transference of Adam Smiths version of sympathy; indeed, what George Eliot skirts by invoking the
historical remove of the Dutch realist painting is the problematic of class identity present in Jaffes anaylsis. Jaffe
argues that Victorian representations of sympathy are, as sympathy was for Smith, specular, crucially involving the
way capitalist social relations transform subjects into spectators of and objects for one another (8), and argument
couched in readings of Dickenss Christmas Carol as attempt[ing] to link sympathy and business by incorporating
a charitable impulse into its readers self-conception (30). While it is easy to gloss the pictorial allusions in George
Eliot as a casting of sympathy in specular terms, these references nevertheless do not work in the way Jaffe
describes the spectatorial position of the reader.

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view of the world, which, meta-fictionally, is interested in educating the sympathetic orientation
of the reader.
George Eliot comments on the difficulty of securing the desired reaction of the reader in a
reflective passage of a letter to her dear friend Mrs. Charles Bray: in writing any careful
presentation of human feelings, you must count on that infinite stupidity of the readers who are
always substituting their crammed notions of what ought to be felt for any attempt to recall truly
what they themselves have felt under like circumstances (GEL V 471). George Eliot is laboring
against what she knows readers docarry their baggage into their reading lives, import their
own ideologies and overlay them onto the text. More simply, George Eliot, the enemy of dogma,
frets over whether or not her readers will sacrifice their rationality for the comfort of moralistic
suppositions and beliefs. George Eliot is in good company, as any literary theorist must contend
with the inevitability that there is no perfect reader, no objective reading, no matter how much
a text may strive to construct or ensure one. But couched in this reflection, too, there is the
careful acknowledgement that the emotions, the affects, are tricky objects to represent; the mere
mention of an affect, though it may rationally stem from a series of fictional circumstances, is
nevertheless merely a referent. The naming of the affect, even the description of it, is no
guarantee that the reading subject will identify and validate that affect; truly, there is no
guarantee, considering how mutable affect is, that it will be read as rational or believable. This is
perhaps why George Eliot does not seek to spur the reader to a particular effect: she does not
want, for instance, her readers to rejoice at Eppies decision in Silas Marner, or to feel their
heartrate accelerate with a shared anxiety with Gwendolens murderous desires. These may be
reasonable effects of reading the novels, but theyre not certain effects. Instead, she supplants
any particularized affective response with the invocation of sympathywhich she is careful to

167

say is not the invocation of any particular affect (it is not pity, not compassion, not empathy), but
rather a gateway affect.
In spite of how easy it might be to worship aestheticized and imagined Madonnas (Adam
Bede 196) or Theresas (Middlemarch 3), it is far more important to represent the common
coarse people, who have no picturesque sentimental wretchedness! (Adam Bede 196).
Sympathy, then, is about accepting our fellow-mortals as they are: you can neither straighten
their noses, nor brighten their wit, nor rectify their dispositions (194).20 Sympathy, ultimately, is
not just a passive state of affective experience, or merely an orientation toward another human,
but is both, and constituted by action. As George Eliot describes it in a letter to Charles Bray, I
have had heart-cutting experience that opinions are a poor cement between human souls; and the
only effect I ardently 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 (GEL III 111). Again,
George Eliot emphasizes that we humans are struggling, erringcreatures, and that the
work of sympathy is to imagine and feel with and for other people. So sympathy is about a
20

Here the linguistic choice of fellow-mortals instead of a perhaps more commonly used fellow-creatures is
fascinating. The Oxford English Dictionary cites contemporary usage by Browning of the latter; fellow-creatures
also shows up frequently in the writing of Elizabeth Gaskell. As the OED notes, fellow-creatures signifies a
production of the same Creator, implying a Christian theism. Fellow-mortals side-steps in the invocation of a
deity in favor of a citation of the commonly shared mortality of living beings. She likewise uses fellow-mortals
twice in Middlemarch. In the first, the deployment comes in a passage where George Eliot is decrying the tendency
of humans to idealize others, to permit the workings of ego to interfere with the truthful understanding of the other:
The fact is unalterable, that a fellow-mortal with whose nature you are acquainted solely through the brief
entrances and exists of a few imaginative weeks called courtship, may, when seen in the continuity of
married companionship, be disclosed as something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but
will certainly not appear altogether the same. (195)
In the example, the necessity for sympathy is invoked by establishing a commonality and common-ground between
human subjects that, though prey to the tendencies to idealization and elevation, are nevertheless refined and
corrected through prolonged contact with the other, provided that the inclination to sympathy is present.
The second example comes on the heels of Lydgates gossip-driven implication in Raffless death:
nevertheless, he [Lydgate] would not turn away from this crushed fellow-mortal [Bulstrode] whose aid he had
used, and a pitiful effort to get acquittal for himself by howling against another (740). In the example of Lydgate, it
is important to note that the term fellow-mortal is being used precisely in a situation wherein his sympathy is
showing its evolution and maturation: instead of taking the easy (false, if thinking in terms of Adam Bede) route of
calumniating Bulstrode, he chooses instead to own his share of the mistake and stand by his decision.

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radical openness to the otherthat which is not necessarily youbut is characterized not by
passivity or intellectuality, but by the invocation of joyous affects, active affects, like love or
tolerance; it is not merely a mode of isolated self-reflection, but instead a change or shift in the
feeling subject.
That, at any rate, is the labor of sympathy. Sympathy is by no means easyit requires a
capacious orientation towards the world and its inhabitants that can be overwhelming, if not
impossible. To be attuned to all others is the subject of the most famous passage of
Middlemarch:
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing
the grass grow and the squirrels heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on
the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with
stupidity. (194)
This stupidity is a necessary condition of being humanthough there is an implicit caution
against the wadding of such stupidity, of insulating ourselves too much against the experience
of others. As quoted above in her exchange with Mrs. Charles Bray, that stupidity too often takes
the form of the readers imposition of a moral code or ideological system onto the action of the
text, or more largely, the operation of the world (GEL IV 471).21 That sort of wadding is
unacceptable. But without some wadding of a protective sense of self, there is the danger of

21

This sort of stupidity, the inability to think beyond ones preconceived notions of the nature of the world, and the
proper behavior of subjects within it, is at the heart of George Eliots own rebellion against traditional Christian
dogma and practice. The hypocrisy that this adherence to a super-imposed structure results in characters like
Bulstrode, who is governed by his rationalization of Gods will for him in accordance with his own petty and vain
human desires. It is also an important aspect of Feuerbachs philosophy of religion as a reflection of man to himself,
and the vain transcendence imagined in the form of a God who is nothing but that reflection of mans own desire.
Likewise, Spinoza in his scriptural exegesis declaims the tendency of the religious to inconsistently interpret
scripture to a teleological end without acknowledging properly the historical presence (by which I mean the
relevance of the scripture to its historical era at the time of its composition). Strauss, too, building on the exegetical
labor of Spinoza, rigorously and good-humoredly blows to bits the proliferation of impossible and incompatible
readings of scripture that are shoe-horned paradoxically into an incoherent dogma.

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losing the sense of selfof seeking martyrdom, as Dorothea does in the novel, by resolutely
sacrificing ones own happiness and self, in what Ladislaw calls her fanaticism of sympathy.
In this condition, one falls into the attempt to take care of all the world (219) without attending
to the self. There is something so incredibly beautiful and enviable about the generous sympathy
she describes: though it may be painful (to die of that roar), who wouldnt want to hear the
grass grow and the squirrels heartbeat? The rhetorical thrust of the figurative language is such
that the reader is enlisted to desire such an end. At any rate, that death is a condition only for
those who experience the world as a silence because of their self-isolation or their ego. Those
readers who are capable of sympathizing, and we flatter ourselves that we are one of them, have
already had a glimpse of the fullness of life as a ward against that ignominious death. Thus, this
ability to tune in to the sensory world is but a metaphor of the sort of re-orientation that
sympathy requires; the sensory world (seeing, hearing) is overlaid onto the labor of affect, in
order to insist on the fact that the mechanisms of bodily perception no less apply to the
experience of affect.
There is also in George Eliot an understanding of the spontaneous existence of sympathy
between individuals. While we may feel entreated to love our fellow-mortal by the injunctions
present in George Eliots work, she also acknowledges the sheer human fact that we are more
inclined to sympathize with some rather than other. In Janets Repentance, one of the Scenes of
Clerical Life that mark George Eliots initial foray into fiction, the narrator describes the
sympathy that is earned after the shackles of self-will and social pressure are lifted, as when
Janet opens herself up to Rev. Tryan:
Blessed influence of one true loving human soul on another! Not calculable by algebra,
not deducible by logic, but mysterious, effectual, mighty as the hidden process by which

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the tiny seed is quickened, and bursts forth into tall stem and broad leaf, and glowing
tasseled flower. Ideas are often poor ghosts; our sun-filled eyes cannot discern them; they
pass athwart us in thin vapour, and cannot make themselves felt. But sometimes they are
made flesh; they breathe upon us with warm breath, they touch us with soft responsive
hands, they look at us with sad sincere eyes, and speak to us in appealing tones; they are
clothed in a living human soul, with all its conflicts, its faith, and its love. Then their
presence is power, then they shake us like a passion, and we are drawn after them with
gentle compulsion, as flame is drawn to flame. (Scenes of Clerical Life 306)
The workings of sympathy here are complex. For one thing, the passage depicts the translation of
a virtue or idea into human form, demonstrating by proxy that humans are capable of becoming
embodied ideas.22 The work of sympathy, as in the famous passage from Middlemarch, is
transposed into material figurative language: the influence of one true loving human soul on
another is not reducible to the workings of logic or algebra, but rather akin to the growth of a
body, here the quickening of a seed and its blossoming. The readers bodythe site of affects
feelingis invoked and educated. The feeling of sympathy is the feeling of coming into the
body, of ineffably feeling growth, of coming into a fuller, more mature being. Those of us wellwadded with stupidity suffer from arrested development (cf. Hetty Poyser and Rosamond
Vincys relentless infantilization); we are stunted and infantile, whereas those whose sympathy is
ignited (like a flame) can grow into the fullness of (adult) being. Ideas, too, have flesh, are real,
as feelings are real, and the influence of another is real. If we insist on being stupid, deaf or

22

This is a the kernel of Spinozist materialism, the idea that the idea is itself a thing that is embodied, and can be
embodied forth in human form; the coequality of ideas and flesh, and their ability to inhabit both simultaneously,
reads like a gloss on the various modes of material existence as being co-present within an immanent totality.
Spinoza explains that the first thing which constitutes the actual being of the human Mind is nothing but the idea of
a singular thing which actually exists (Ethics III.P11) and that the object of the idea constituting the human mind
is the body, or a certain mode of extension which actually exists, and nothing else (Ethics III.P13).

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dumb to the influence of another, and the awakening of our sympathy, then we are ultimately
resisting the biological teleology encoded in our bodies. We are resisting what the body itself
already knowsthat it can feel, and does feel, with and for another. The work of sympathy is
akin to the mystery of the quickening seed, or the development of the flower. If we were to
know, or be able to discern the operation of sympathy, we would have a key to the structure and
function of organic life. And at heart, this sympathy is the bending of one flame to another, itself
another natural process that is inexplicable to the naked human eye or the average human
intellect. But it is crucial that both processesthe germination of a seed into a glowing tasseled
flower and the flame drawn to flameare natural processes that are ultimately knowable,
provided one knew enough about botany and physics. Likewise, the sympathy that erupts
between Ladislaw and Dorothea in Rome is described as an Aeolian harp, that poetic figure
that the wind plays by rippling over and setting the strings of the harp in motion. Though the
work of the Aeolian harp feels mystical, if one knew enough of the basics of the physics of wind
and waves, it would become a knowable and rational device, though still delightful. Seemingly
mystifying the condition of this spontaneous sympathy that can erupt between two humans,
George Eliot is instead cannily arguing for its rigorous demystification.23
Sympathy is especially elusive in Middlemarch, as Rae Greiner acknowledges.24 Spinoza
concludes the Ethics with the telling aphorism: All things excellent are as difficult as they are
rare (V.P42s). If sympathy were easy, there would exist no misunderstandings, no strife, no

23

Hence, Gertrude Himmelfarbs question: Why does Dorothea marry Ladislaw? when Lydgate is no less
attractive sexually (15) is a question that somewhat misses the point. Himmelfarb is not concerned with the
ineffable dynamics of the spontaneous manifestation of sympathy, and though she, with many other Victorian and
twentieth century critics, wonders why Lydgate wouldnt be the best match for her, eventually settles on the claim
that her attraction is based on his gradual coming-into-moral adulthood (19). Ironically, this maturation is sought
and claimed as the foundational trope in Middlemarch by Zadie Smith as well, who, however, claims it is precisely
the charm of Fred Vincys education that drives her interest in the novel.
24
Anna Kornbluh agreess that the scarcity of sympathy in the novel is a refiguration of the Adam Smith trope of the
scarcity of resources, and that sympathy itself is an economic problem in the novel (5-6).

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conflict: each individual would pursue the highest form of the common good in the pursuit of her
own conatus. But it is simply not the case that we are all so blessed with that knowledge of
ourselves: we are flawed creatures, capable of knowing only what we feel as if we know,
conditioned by compounding confusions and inadequacy. Despite the fact that Critics never tire
of talking about sympathy in Eliot, Greiner argues, that wealth of talk is disproportionate to the
narrow fund of sympathy represented in her novels, especially Middlemarch. While the word
itself shows up some thirty-odd times in one form or another, successful sympathyis
remarkably hard to come by in that novel (300).
Inasmuch as sympathy must be learnedand also insofar as sympathy increases naturally the
readers level of Spinozist knowledgemost of George Eliots novels contain scenes of
education, a point developed in more detail in the third and fourth chapters of the dissertation.
The archetypal scene of the education of sympathy is one that reverberates inside of all of her
novelsand echoes in the intended relationship between her novels and her readers. To that end,
there are scenes of, as various critics have put it, instruction, conversion, confession, or
education. As Laurence Lerner notes, Every one of her books contains such a study, for the
psychological process which interested her most was that by which a limited personality, whose
emotional life was constricted by egoism, learns under the influence of a nobler nature to yield to
more generous impulses, and transcend the bounds of self (355). Lerner homes in on the crucial
underlying trope: while education itself may be in question (as is the case with Dorotheas
expectations of Casaubons influence, or Esther Lyons literal education at the hands of Felix
Holt), ones basic education is in the reorientation of the self beyond the boundaries of the ego to
an acceptance of the larger implications of the human, social world. And although most of these
scenes take the form of a woman being educated at the hands of a man, there are notable

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departures25Dorotheas moment of sympathetic connection with Lydgate, which opens him up


to a compassionate understanding of his wife, or Dolly Winthrops gentle, socializing education
of Silas Marner.
And why does sympathy need to be learned?because Middlemarch is rife with examples of
idealization and delusional visions generated by egoism. Middlemarchs central concern is that
we are unable to see clearly the people who are most closely associated with us; the irony of a
novel that purports to be a Study of Provincial Life is that its limitationssignaled by the
Provincial of the title, and the close geographical confines of the noveldo not prove that the
community in Middlemarch is perfectly knowable, as Williams describes the communities
contained in Austens novels. This is not to say that the ambition of Middlemarch is anything
less than a description of an intelligible community, but rather that, as Williams puts it, George
Eliots work enacts the transition between that form which could end in a series of
settlements, in which the social and economic solutions and the personal achievements were in a
single dimension, and that new form which extending and complicating and then finally
collapsing this dimension ends with a single person going away on his own, having achieved his
moral growth by distancing or by extrication (Dickens to Lawrence 86-87).26 Insofar as
Middlemarch is a knowable community, it is knowable to the reader, the writer, the narrator
but not to the characters themselves. This is its precious irony: that the novel perhaps best known

25

Lerner includes an incomplete list: Janet Dempster, Hetty Sorrel, Esther Lyon, Rosamund Vincy and Gwendolen
Harleth. But there is truly not a single substantial work by George Eliot that does not contain either an explicit and
obvious instance of this dynamic, or, at the very least, a permutation or parody of these moments. Paula Nestor
sophisticates this claim by arguing that the relationships that are so archetypal in George Eliot undergo a subtle
intellectual development over the course of her novelsfrom the pity deployed in Amos Barton (39) to the
empathy present in Janets Repentance (37) to the recognition of otherness in Silas Marner (84-85) to the most
ambitious Middlemarch (139).
26
This transition echoes, formally, the historical transition from a belief in the primacy of the individual to a point
wherein the social, the collective, is prized, as seen in Nancy Armstrongs work, though she does not locate this
transition in George Eliots novels. In spite of that, it strikes me that the formal change that Williams is describing is
cognate to the historical change that Armstrong maps in How Novels Think.

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for rendering the lives of its inhabitants remarkably and unerringly complex and alive for its
readers is nevertheless about its own characters inability to transcend the bondage of self and
know one another. The novel endlessly demonstrates, in a variety of configurations and with
varying degrees of severity, the obstacles that ego throws in the face of knowing another,
primarily in the relationship between Rosamond and Lydgate, which is characterized by an
endless stream of missed connections and willful misunderstandings. Between him and her
indeed there was that total missing of each others mental track, which is too evidently possible
even between persons who are continually thinking of each other (632). This phrase is the
culmination of many instances in which the two are quite clearly at odds with each other, having
constructed fantastical visions of what the other is supposed to be, failing to understand the
pragmatic materiality of the other in front of them.
When Rosamond first meets Lydgate, she is consumed with the fantasies she fashions around
him; having long determined that no man in Middlemarch is sufficiently grand enough for her,
that no local presents the ticket out of town and the entre to larger society that she wishes for,
which, joined to the fact that he is an outsider, is a sufficient foundation for her castles in the air.
Strangers, whether wrecked and clinging to a raft, or duly escorted and accompanied by
portmanteaus, have always had a circumstantial fascination for the virgin mind, against
which native merit has urged itself in vain. And a stranger was absolutely necessary to
Rosamonds social romance, which had always turned on a lover and bridegroom who
was not a Middlemarcher, and who had no connections at all like her own: of late,
indeed, the construction seemed to demand that he should somehow be related to a
baronet. Now that she and the stranger had met, reality proved much more moving than
anticipation, and Rosamond could not doubt that this was the great epoch of her life. She

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judged her own symptoms as those of awakening loveAnd here was Mr. Lydgate
suddenly corresponding to her ideal. (145)
Rosamond is incapable of understanding what the narrator demonstrates we should know about
the fantasies that people like Rosamond havethat young girls are prone to be romantic and
high-flown and imaginative. Instead, she comes quite quickly to conflate the ideal that shes
constructed and hunted with the presence of the first stranger who meets the basic parameters.
Before they [Rosamond and Fred] had ridden half a mile, she had crafted the entirety of the
marriage ceremony out of her remarkably detailed and realistic imagination (146).
Lydgate also colludes in this production, however; and while he does not have the initial
reaction that Rosamond does, having been trained to be more methodical and pragmatic, he
nevertheless succumbs to the fantasy hes constructed of her, imagining her to be (in todays
parlance) a trophy wife, submissive and domestic, practical and supportive. Of Rosamond,
Lydgate ruminates: She is grace itself; she is perfectly lovely and accomplished. That is what a
woman ought to be: she ought to produce the effects of exquisite music even though as the
narrator knowingly remarks, to a man under such circumstances [as Lydgates], taking a wife is
something more than a question of adornment (121). Otherwise desiring to adhere to the plan
hes drafted for his life, he nevertheless succumbs to Rosamonds superficial charms. Unlike
Rosamond, the sylph caught young and educated at Mrs Lemons (189) and the flower of Mrs
Lemons school (123), whose charms have been rigorously trained and developed in order to
have precisely the captivating effect that they indeed have, his actual ideal wife would be far
more substantial and, in truth, less polished and ornamental.27 Taking in all of this, the narrator

27

It is perhaps this that led early reviewers to wonder if Lydgate and Dorothea werent perhaps the best match in the
novel; indeed, in contemporary criticism, Gertrude Himmelfarb continues to belabor this trope in her essay on
George Eliot in The Moral Imagination. It strikes me, however, that any suppositious claim that Dorothea and
Lydgate are the most plausible couple in the novel disregards the intense professional egoism that Lydgate is

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remarks slily But anyone watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots, sees the slow
preparation of effects from one life on another, which tells like a calculated irony on the
indifference or the frozen stare with which we look at our introduced neighbor. Destiny stands by
sarcastic with our dramatic personae folded in her hand (122). Unaccustomed to calculating the
true value of another person beyond medical hypotheses, he brings a much more testing vision
of details and relations into this pathological study [of fevers] than he had ever thought it
necessary to apply to the complexities of love and marriage, these being subjects on which he
felt himself amply informed by literature, and that traditional wisdom which is handed down in
the genial conversation of men (193). Indeed, he is possessed of significant blind spots, which
conspire to lead him into this ill-fated marriage: Lydgates spots of commonness lay in the
complexion of his prejudices, which, in spite of noble intentions and sympathy, were half of
them such as are found in ordinary men of the world: that distinction of mind which belonged to
his intellectual ardor, did not penetrate his feeling and judgment about furniture, or women
(179). Lydgates intellectualism, like Dorotheas eager pursuit of martyrdom, has clouded his
perception of the material world around him; it is this failure that drives Lydgate through the
novel. The narrators canny foreshadowing of the irrelevancies of furniture uncomfortably
predicts his downward financial spiral, hinging as it does on Rosamonds reckless purchase of a
full set of furniture for their home. Lydgate is, however, a more sympathetic character for the
reader, if only because the narrator handles him in terms that are more laudable than Rosamonds
appellations and epithets.28 The narrator is notably gentler with Lydgates egoism than with
possessed of which in many ways, though more altruistic and less abstractly grandiose than Casaubons work, is
no less self-consuming. Dorothea, as the novel bears out, is ultimately looking for an attentive partner; she could
have no more patience, ultimately, with Lydgates inattention than she does with Casaubon, however delayed her
realization might be.
28
One can only recall the infantilizing and debasing likenesses that the narrator of Adam Bede draws up in
describing Hetty Sorrel: she is a kitten-like maiden (92), with a beauty like that of kittens, or very small downy
ducks making gentle rippling noises with their soft bills, or babies just beginning to toddle and engage in conscious

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Rosamonds: while he seeks the discovery of a uniting physiological principle, she merely seeks
escape, leisure, and social elevation. If anything, however, the rigor of Lydgates intellect leads
him deeper into this labyrinthine idealization; in a telling passage, Rosamonds fantasy gets short
shrift compared to his.
Rosamond thought that no one could be more in love than she was; and Lydgate thought
that after all his wild mistakes and absurd credulity, he had found perfect womanhood
felt as if already breathed upon by exquisite wedded affection such as would be bestowed
by an excellent creature who venerated his high musings and momentous labours and
would never interfere with them; who would create order in the home and accounts with
still magic, yet keep her fingers ready to touch the lute and transform life into romance at
any moment; who was instructed to the true womanly limit and not a hairs-breadth
beyonddocile, therefore, and ready to carry out behests which came from beyond that
limit. (387)
Between the two lies an impassable gulf that they have foolhardily followed through to the
logical ends of their irrationally-developed images. True sympathy exists when the material,
objective reality of the other can penetrate through the self-protective and self-advancing
constructions of ego, not when we surrender to the fantasies we generate about other people.
True sympathy can only exist between subjects who can really know each other, and are not
enslaved to the confused ideas they have of each other.
On the presumed individuality of our egos, George Eliot remarks that Our vanities differ
as our noses do: all conceit is not the same conceit, but varies in correspondence with the

mischiefa beauty with which you can never be angry, but that you feel ready to crush for inability to comprehend
the state of mind into which it throws you (92). She is furthermore a little puss (112), almost a child herself
(167), a downy peach (167), no better than a peacock (170), a little minx (247), and a canary bird (273),
among other things.

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minutiae of mental make in which one of us differs from another (179). Our egos are driven by
differential formulae of self-preservation and idealization. Spinozas foundation lies in the
conatus, the fact that Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its
being (Ethics III.P6). It is the labor of the intellect to work out whether or not a perceived object
is a suitable satisfaction for this particular drive. And the mind, insofar as it is individual and
differentiated, is more often than not prone to error. Thus, the imagination: The mind as far as it
can, strives to imagine those things that increase or aid the bodys power of acting (Ethics
III.P12). This is obviously a complicated process, and each subjects relative success depends on
its ability to apprise correctly the true nature of the object pursued, and rightly predict the effects
that that object will have on him. If a subject is correct in his reading of the effect of the object,
then the subject is proceeding according to adequate ideas of the object, out of which actions of
the mind can properly arise; if not, or if the subject has a confused or inadequate idea of the
object being pursued, he is dependent on the passions (Ethics III.P3). Moreover, these passions
are powerful: The force of any passion, or affect, can surpass the other actions, or power, of a
man, so that the affect stubbornly clings to the man (Ethics IV.P6). These passions are the
effects of inadequate ideas, and they further confuse and complicate the subjects ability to
generate and develop correct or adequate ideas of the world around him. As we see with
Rosamond, for instance, her original fantasyfinding an outsider that will sweep her out of
Middlemarchclouds her ability to read Lydgate correctly, and the fantasy involves and
implicates an inappropriate object for its own continuation. Rosamond is a victim of her
passions; they have occluded her otherwise adequate desire to preserve herself and thrive.
This leads us to the intrusions of the omniscient narrator in Middlemarch. Only through
this narrators presence does the reader realize the gulf between ideal and real in the novel.

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Whereas Lydgate and Rosamond sadly lack the expansive awareness that the narrator affords the
reader, the reader is privy to the knowledge, as quoted above, that we should shake our heads
sadly at their missing of each others tracks. What happens in the novel is the repetitive failure
of the communityits individual membersto correctly and adequately form ideas about each
other, although the novel has notable flashpoints when the characters do. The narrators job is to
organize these disparate lives into a semblance of order. The coming-together-of-singularities, or
multitude, is the means by which subjects in Spinozas immanent world generate power. 29 So the
failure of the egoistic subject in Middlemarchits tendency toward idealization and inadvertent
isolationprecludes the consolidation of singularities into multitudes. This is perhaps what
Williams is obliquely referencing when he ascribes to George Eliot the connection between the
intensity of lonely feeling and the hardness of ordinary lifein a phrase she goes on to usethe
emphasis of want (Dickens to Lawrence 76). It is precisely this emphasis of want that leads to
two competing phenomena in George Eliot, the intensity of isolated need and desire; the
inherited sympathy of general observation (78). As Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth reflects, Poor
Lydgate! Poor Rosamond! Each lived in a world of which the other knew nothing. This famous
phrase in Middlemarch is a model of the narrators mediating behavior, bridging gaps that the
characters are unable to cross (70). The narrators job is to bridge the hurdles that the egoistic
limitations of each characters self-consciousness pose, in order to demonstrate to the reader that,
in spite of the failure of these connections within the lives of the characters, there is,
nevertheless, a more empowering way of seeing what is occurring. This labor comes to fruition
29

The accepted term for individuals in Spinozas conception of the social world is singularities, or at least it has
become the accepted term through the interventions of Negri and Deleuze. Subject, though, appears to work
interchangeably to some extent, though there is a slippage that occurs when the term subject is used, and
contemporary theorists are rightfully skeptical about according any sort of primacy to the singular subject. But
because the singularities spoken of in terms of literary criticism are human characters, and because those characters
are invested with realistic psychologies that are shaped by the organizing consciousness of the writer, then it seems
appropriate on some level to render the two terms roughly equivalent, even at the cost of philosophical niceties.

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in the readers experience of the novel.30 The narrators performance of affective labor may seem
misplaced, but the narrator is working, through the unfolding of the narratorial consciousness in
the novel, to makes connections for the reader that may otherwise not be clear.
All of this is realized in the third termthe synthesis of Williamss dialectic, the
analytic consciousness, that ordinary product of individual and social development, which comes
in to enlighten and to qualify but above all to mediate the isolated desire and the general
observation (Dickens to Lawrence 78).31 It is this third term that George Eliot displaces onto the
reader in the process of educating the readers sympathy. If egoism determines the first
instancethe intensity of isolated [read: egoistic] need and desireand the omniscient
narrator fills in the connections between those wanting characters in the second instancethen
the labor is completed in its synthesis, the readers mediation between those two phenomena. But
only the presence of all three of these terms effects education: without the second, for instance,
there would be no possible sympathy for the self-centered individuals that populate her novels;
without the first, any sympathy or observation generated about their doings would be
superfluous.

30

I call the labor of the narrator affective labor, in the vein of its elaboration by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.
The creative labor of the novelistwriting and shaping narrativeis paradigmatically affective labor, insofar as it
does not engage industrial productive processes, and instead produces intellectual objects for self-reflection and
cultural value. Granted, many Victorian scholars have theorized the nature of the literary marketplace in the
nineteenth century, and have made a compelling argument for the production of novels as a spectral parallel of the
industrial process; likewise, a novelist like Gissing (in New Grub Street) understands how alienating the affective
labor of writing can be, inasmuch as its effects on its practitioners is no different from the deadening daily interface
with machines. Nevertheless, George Eliot (though she was endlessly concerned with the relative financial success
of her novels) did believe writing to be a vocation apart from the larger productive sphere, but also dedicated herself
doggedly to it. In a letter, George Eliot commented upon the parallel between industrial manufacture and the labor
of the novelist, likening bad fiction to overproduced calico.
31
Ermarth has a different version of this dialectical development within the realist novel: Realistic novelists exploit
for various ends the tensions between difference and concord, between the centrifugal forces that fragment and
multiply experience and the centripetal ones that unify and reduce it (63). The accounts are not necessarily
mutually exclusive, but do take as their foundations different facets of the novels purpose and focus; Ermarth
focuses more on the mechanisms of regulation that the narrator performs, whereas Williams is far more concerned
with a materialist reading of the novels content.

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At any rate, the relationship between Lydgate and Rosamond persists throughout the
novel as a cautionary tale of what happens when two competing egoists, driven by the
idealization theyve crafted of the other, inextricably cast their lots together. Their succeeding
difficulties, which need no further elaboration here, mark new epochs in the quasi-autonomous
development of their confused and inadequate ideas. The resolution of these hurdles is often
painful and frequently precipitated by the presence of other social bodies. For instance,
Rosamonds flirtatious nature, which leads her to bestow attentions upon Captain Lydgate; this
desire to delight in mak[ing] captives from the throne of marriage with a husband as a crownprince by your side (475) leads her to neglect her husbands orders not to ride a horse. The
result is that this early offspring of their marriage is lost. The effect of this is the dawning
realization on Lydgate of an amazed sense of powerlessness over Rosamond (631). This is but
one of several hurdles that the pair go through, each more intense and painful than the last.
In spite of sympathys rarity, Middlemarch is perhaps the most profound location of it in
George Eliots novels. Much is made of Dorotheas altruistic impulsesher idealism that leads
her to seek reform and improvement among those lives that orbit hers. The telling passage at the
beginning of the novel, when Celia and Dorothea wrangle over the jewels left them by their
mother, reveals the nature of the endearing naivete that Dorothea labors under. Dorothea is
enamored of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have
those aspects; likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractions, and then to incur martyrdom after
all in a quarter where she had not sought it (30). This ruthless pursuit of self-abnegation is not
something that George Eliot condones. In the tone of this description, the narrator reveals a wry
bemusement at Dorotheas tendencies; she is, after all, nave enough not to be rewarded with the
martyrdom she seeks in the place that she seeks it in, but rather in a quarter where she had not

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sought it. This martyrdom will come to Dorothea, but in such a form that belies her best
intentions. Her ironic selflessness is contrary to the mechanism of sympathy. Though her
altruismwhich takes the form of reforming the cottages and living conditions of those on her
uncles farmis laudable, the fervor with which she seeks it is immoderate (or passionate).
In keeping with Spinoza, and eminently in keeping with George Eliots own tenets (as
developed in her novels), passions must be checked by the operation of reason. Emotion without
reflection and moderation is dangerous: witness the homicidal mob that sweeps through the
center of Felix Holt. Dorotheas passions are liquid, fluid, changeable but overwhelming; they
are alternately her lifeblood, a torrential river, or an avalanche; they overwhelm and submerge
her rational self under the irresistible flow of her desires. Explicitly: All Dorotheas passion was
transfused through a mind struggling towards an ideal life (68). The passions, ungovernable
emotions, carry the day and shoot through her reason, here located traditionally in the mind, with
their color and influence. Likewise describing the overwhelming tow of the passions, they are
further characterized in the metaphorical language of liquidAll her eagerness for acquirement
lay within that full current of sympathetic motive in which her ideas and impulses were
habitually swept along (an image repeated in the final scene in The Mill on the Floss) (112).
Shortly after, Dorothea discovers that her impulse for self-obliteration is best contained within
the promise of becoming the amanuensis to Casaubon, for what lamp was there but knowledge
to be the guiding vision and spiritual director for her more generous aspirations (112-113)? For
him, Dorotheas feelings had gathered to an avalanche, so overwhelming her capability for a
rational consideration of the mitigating factors of a union with himwhich Celia braves with
disastrous results (Really, Dodo, cant you hear how he scrapes his spoon? And he always
blinks before he speaks.)that she surrenders to the ideal image she has constructed of him

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(72). Sir James Chettam, admittedly influenced unduly by his own desire for Dorothea,
nevertheless appraises Casaubon with regards to his age and his futility: He is no better than a
mummy! (81).
Casaubons age notwithstanding, it should be clear to Dorothea, as it is to those around
her and the reader, that Casaubon is not a meet life-partner; but the relentless mechanism of
projective beliefs about ourselves and others intervene, rendering her incapable of seeing clearly
the unfitness. And so Dorothea, like Lydgate and Rosamond, is no less prey to the influence of
ego, prey to its ability to distort and deform the true and objective by virtue of its own desires. A
bathetic example of this is her misreading his proposal as romantic and passionate when an
objective reading of the text confirms our worst suspicions of Casaubonthat he is dull, dry,
pedantic, and self-consumed.32 In this very letter, however, we get a glimpse at Casaubons own
idealization of Dorothea: in her, he sees an elevation of thought and a capability of devotedness,
which I had hitherto not conceived to be compatible either with the early bloom of youth or with
those graces of sex that may be said at once to win and to confer distinction when combined, as
they notably are in you, with the mental qualities above indicated (66). He has permitted
himself to transcend his own self-prescribed proscriptions against marriage in order to pursue his
belief that Dorothea is the woman that is fit to share his life. This resonates with Dorotheas own
self-conception as an amanuensis to a great man, as Casaubon engenders expectations of
Dorotheas devoted servitude. He expects her to supply aid in graver labors and to case a charm
over vacant hours, to indulge her tendency toward martyrdom in a self-negation that aids his
32

Dorothea is a dull reader, indeed, to mistake Casaubons letter for anything else. He speaks of the dawning of the
consciousness of a need for a wife, and his impression that your [Dorotheas] eminent and perhaps exclusive
fitness to supply that need (connected, I may say, with such activity of the affections as even the preoccupations of a
work too special to be abdicated could not uninterruptedly dissimulate). The unnecessarily high register of his
diction, and his avowed dedication to the Key to All Mythologies, and the displacement of the expected invocation of
love into the abstraction the activity of the affections, all point out to even the most nave reader the complete lack
of romantic feelings that Casaubon has for her or is capable of generating (66).

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own purpose (66). This purpose is providentially related thereto as stages towards the
completion of a lifes plan with which he expects Dorothea to fall into line (67). In the case of
Rosamond and Lydgate, their idealizations of each other widely miss the mark: it is obviously
the case that they do not have a clear idea of the other at all; both have been wholly misled by
their ideas of what theyre seeking for in a mate. With regards to Dorothea and Casaubon, we see
a more sophisticated delusion at play; on some level, the match is correct because each knows
what is at stake. But, and this is crucial, both people are responding to the needs of Casaubon: he
seeks a helpmate, and Dorothea desires to be a helpmate. His patriarchal privilege is encoded
within the oblique references to his age; if he were younger, Dorotheas kowtowing would feel
excessively nave or self-punishing, but in the case of Casaubon, his age leverages him into the
position of patriarch in such a way as to satisfy her ideal. We are given hints of this: Mr.
Casaubon, too, was the centre of his world; if he was liable to think that others were
providentially made for him, and especially to consider them in light of their fitness for the
author of the Key to All Mythologies, this trait is not quite alien to us, and, like the other
mendicant hopes of mortals, claims some of our pity (111). This egoism, the narrator clarifies,
is more severe and self-limiting than the run-of-the-mill egoism which we all suffer under. His
was that worst loneliness that would shrink from sympathy (112). Even if our sympathy were
mutable, Casaubon, we are informed, is inclined to avoid it. But it is clear that this citadel of self
into which he retreats does absolve him on some level, of wreaking havoc on the lives of others;
after all, he had not actively assisted in creating any illusions about himself (227). Any
misapprehensions are Dorotheas alone, products of her own self-will run riot.
As mentioned above, everyone around Dorothea is skeptical of her marriagethey are
able to see, even if vaguely, that the match will be a disappointment at best or a disaster at worst.

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But Dorotheas psychology is deeply wrought by George Eliot: accessory to her drive for
martyrdom is a streak of stubbornness. Only the most heightened circumstances will shake
Dorothea from her resolution to attend Casaubon for the rest of his life. Famously, in Chapter 20,
Dorothea comes to a dawning awareness of the sacrifice she has made of her best self to her
dogmatic, self-centered and unsuitable husband. The narrator observes,
I am sorry to add that she was sobbing bitterly, with such abandonment to this relief of an
oppressed heart as a woman habitually controlled by pride on her own account and
thoughtfulness for others will sometimes allow herself when she feels securely alone.
And Mr. Casaubon was certain to remain away for some time at the Vatican.
Yet Dorothea had no distinctly shapen grievance that she could state even to
herself; and in the midst of her confused thought and passion, the mental act that was
struggling forth into clearness was a self-accusing cry that her feeling of desolation was
the fault of her own spiritual poverty. She had married the man of her choice, and with
the advantage over most girls that she had contemplated her marriage chiefly as the
beginning of new duties: from the very first she had thought of Mr. Casaubon as having a
mind so much above her own, that he must often be claimed by studies which she could
not entirely share; moreover, after the brief narrow experience of her girlhood she was
beholding Rome, the city of visible history, where the past of a whole hemisphere seems
moving in funeral procession with strange ancestral images and trophies gathered from
afar. (224)
The narrator demonstrates the sympathy that she seeks to instill in the readerDorotheas
expression of regret is the rhetorical signal for us to feel with and for her plight. The narrator
proceeds into a careful revelation of the confused thought and passion, highlighting the

186

egoistic confusion that Dorothea wades through; Dorothea is given full credit for the experience
of confusion. We, as readers, can infer from what we already know of her life and tendencies
what this confusion centers on; we have been given the key by the narrator to unlock the very
human psychology at work. But it is not just her intellect, but also her passions, that are
confused. The passions mislead and overwhelm Dorothea, as weve seen in the passages where
the force of her passion is likened to the surge and flow of water. Per Spinoza, the passions are
incredibly powerful, and are conceived of as the extensions of external causes on the
affected/affecting subject. The labor of the intellect is that which is internal to the subject in
Spinoza, and the passions are begotten by the subjects relationship with external objects.
Explaining the difference between the affects and the passions, Spinoza explains that the
passions are affects caused by inadequate causes or knowledge (III.D3), and thus the mind is
more liable to passions the more it has inadequate ideas (III.P1Cor). Passions are necessarily
grounded in inadequatethat is, false or partialideas by way of the subjects knowledge; and
passions balk subjects ability to combine or reconcile; Insofar as men are subject to passions,
they cannot be said to agree with each other (Ethics IV.P32) and Insofar as men are torn by
affects which are passions, they can be contrary to one another, the latter an affirmation that
contrary affects, thereby irrationally coexisting affects, can occlude the reason of any
compositional affect and become an irrational passion.
So Dorotheas ability to parse out the difference between thoughts and passions
demonstrate that she is coming into an awareness of their difference in her subjective operation.
After all, Dorothea, in contrast to Rome, is a girl whose ardent nature turned all her small
allowance of knowledge into principles, fusing her actions into their mould, and whose quick
emotions gave the most abstract things the quality of a pleasure or a pain; a girl who had lately

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become a wife, and from the enthusiastic acceptance of untried duty found herself plunged in
tumultuous preoccupation with her personal lot (225). Rome, in this passage, is the external
object that ignites her passions: its thick history, the experience of a wider world than the limited
confines of Middlemarch, and the fact of strange ancestral images and trophies gathered from
afar all spur her burgeoning self-awareness.
Rome is a complex object, and the ability of Rome to act as a catalyst to self-awareness is
aided by the further development of Dorotheas pitiful connection to Casaubon. The fact is
unalterable, that a fellow-mortal with whose nature you are acquainted solely through the brief
entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship, may, when seen in the
continuity of married companionship, be disclosed as something better or worse than what you
have preconceived, but will certainly not altogether appear the same (227). His absences in the
Vatican, staying away hours and days pursuing his research, have precipitated this crisis. The
rhythm of this passage is the dialectical see-sawing between the affected subject and the
affecting objectfirst there is Dorothea, then Rome; Dorothea, Rome. The absence of Casaubon,
the superseded cause of this dialectic, recedes dramatically into the background.
The passage reaches a crisis: all this vast wreck of ambitious ideals, sensuous and
spiritual, mixed confusedly with the signs of breathing forgetfulness and degradation, at first
jarred her with an electric shock, and then urged themselves on her with that ache belonging to a
glut of confused ideas which check the flow of emotion (225).33 The language of the electric
shock is intended to signal to the reader the very suddenness and the absoluteness of the vague
33

It has become a familiar question with regards to this passage: is this crisis of Dorotheas post-coital? Certainly
this last quoted passage, where the experience of Rome, after the experience of profound loneliness, signals the
possibility that Dorotheas coming-into-consciousness may be more profoundly physical, sensual, sexual than the
surface of the text reveals. This last quote recalls to mind the moment in Virginia Woolfs Mrs. Dalloway when
Clarissa, swarmed with thoughts of her sexual dysfunction regarding her husband (she imagines herself a virgin still,
after having given birth), retreats to her separate bedroom, where she, awash in abstracted floral imagery, appears to
bring herself off in a masturbatory reflection on Sally Seton. In both passages, the women are described as being
suddenly overwhelmed by an idea of a thing.

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realization that has come upon Dorothea. It is crucial that the electric shock is the domain of Will
Ladislaw; electric shocks are the trope of Ladislaw and a flash of the synthesis of Dorotheas
dialectical confusion.34 This is the first moment in which Dorothea has become open to the
development of sympathy that George Eliot so urges on her readers: it comes upon her like a
shock followed by an ache. Sympathy is hard to come by in the noveland when it comes, it
involves a painfully sudden realization that there are others than the self, and that the images we
have constructed of others are actually violences against them. But we take comfort with the
narrator that this awareness is our collective lot, should we choose to accept it: many souls in
their young nudity are tumbled out among incongruities and left to find their feet among them
(226). This electric shock, the invocation of Dorotheas reorientation, and the frequency with
which we ourselves, the readers, experience this profound de-centering, leverages us directly into
that oft-quoted passage:
That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought
itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear
much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like
hearing the grass grow and the squirrels heart beat, and we should die of that roar which
lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with
stupidity. (226)
Indeed, the effect of this reorientation is later rendered more explicit by the narrator: She was as
blind to his [Casaubons] inward troubles as he to hers; she had not yet learned those hidden

34

Ladislaw often has this electric effect on othersfor instance, at the end of the novel when he passionately
rebukes Rosamonds simpering encroachments, she is described as suffering under the effect of some nervous
shock (839). Likewise, when Bulstrode offers pecuniary remuneration in exchange for Ladislaws secrecy, Will
felt something like an electric shock (669). This is to say nothing of the many descriptions we have of him as
glowing, giving off light and receiving it, and communicating these shocks in his frequent encounters with
Dorothea.

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conflicts in her husband which claim our pity. She had not yet listened patiently to his heartbeats, but only felt her own was beating violently (232, emphasis added). Dorothea had
heretofore been unable to tune into the presence of other subjects, other selves, but the transition
effected by the electric shock of the dialectical encounter with Rome has rendered her open to
the presence of her husbands presence, even in his absence. This is perhaps the significance of
the ache that follows the electric shockthere is first the realization that the subjects self is not
the only viable center of the world, and then the painful realization of exactly who else is
implicated in this realization, which, in Dorotheas case, is grounded upon Casaubons absence.
Upon his return, Dorothea is forced to confront the locus of this pain, which, for her, calls forth
feelings of anger and indignation, foreign feelings to her. But it is the force of her confused
anger, and his response to it, that proves the contagious nature of these awakenings into
sympathy: the shock that initiates Dorotheas awakening becomes mutual: Both were shocked
at their mutual situationthat each should have betrayed anger towards the other (234). In this
moment, both Dorothea and Casaubon are aware that they have idealized the other, and feel not
so much shock that this ideal should crumble, but that the faade they have agreed to should
become cracked. Both are shocked, in George Eliots language. 35 Dorothea is electric with
self-awarenessshe in turn shocks others. This communicability of affective awareness repeats
itself several times throughout the novel in the same language.
It is in this vulnerable state that Dorothea once more runs into Ladislaw, this time in
Rome. Ladislaw is able intuitively to understand Dorothea in a way that she has only recently
35

The invocation of electricitycertainly the subject of another paper or studyis a crucial thematic element of
Middlemarch. Its key lies, to be sure, in one of the biographical elements that has routinely puzzled readers of
George Eliot. Given the option of sending out publishers editions of her novels to prominent critics and authors, she
included many familiar and reasonable namesDickens, Thackeray, Carlyle (or at least Jane, since Thomas did not
read novels)in addition to one puzzling one: Michael Faraday. Faraday, however, was the great Victorian
innovator and student of electricity, and one can discern a paean to him in her likening of affective exchange to
voltage or electric currency.

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become able to understand herself. He sees, for instance, when he meets her after Casaubon has
departed for the Vatican for the day, that he has abandoned her in Rome in pursuit of his
mouldy futilities, a disappointing awareness that sparks a comic disgust that caus[ed] a
queer contortion of his mobile features[that] resolv[ed] into a merry grin (237). Though not
explicitly an invocation of electricity, it nevertheless resolves itself into an image of reciprocal
transfer: the smile was irresistible, and shone back from her face too (237). Instead of reaching
for the farther-away metaphor of electric currency, she falls into a thematically-related clich of
light and shining traditionally associated with smiling: it was a gush of inward light illuminating
the transparent skin as well as the eyes (237). It is this moment wherein the ice is brokenand
instead of the overwhelming gush of water imagery that typically attends Dorotheas moments of
passionate overflow, the exchange is dominated by the exchange of energy characteristic of
Ladislaw.
Emboldened by the experience, Dorothea shares with him a cognate encryption of the
realization that Rome has begotten in her, sliding enough of the terms onto impersonal aesthetic
objects instead of large-scale antiquities or historical invocations. At first when I enter a room
where the walls are covered with frescoes, or with rare pictures, I feel a kind of awe, she begins,
like a child present at great ceremonies where there are grand robes and processions; I feel
myself in the presence of some higher life than my own. But when I begin to examine the
pictures one by one, the life goes out of them, or else is something violent and strange to me
(238). This experiencetranslated in such a way by Dorotheas own intellect so as to specify the
effect that Rome has had in terms of opening her up and utterly reframing her experience of the
worldis communicable because the contagion of sympathy, signaled by the light and the
shock, has enabled its communication between like souls. The Aeolian harp that Ladislaw

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invokes in comparison to Dorothea is another version of this conduction, the transmission of


affective self-awareness (105, 241). Her communion with Ladislaw clarifies the otherwise vague
dissatisfaction that she arrived at during her encounter with Rome. Ladislaw teases out for
Dorothea the unfitness of her husband in such a way that avoids the confrontational or reductive
characterizations levied at him by others (like Celia and Sir James Chettam). In Ladislaws
opinion, Casaubon is married to his work, not to Dorothea; his first and most important
attachment is to The Key to all Mythologies. In this, the narration concurs. Thus, there is a deep
pathos in Ladislaws judgment of the life-work Casaubon has assumed and allowed to consume
him: And therefore it is a pity that it [his life] should be thrown away, as so much English
scholarship is, for want of knowing what is being done by the rest of the world. If Mr. Casaubon
read German he would save himself a great deal of trouble (240).36 Casaubon is, according to
Ladislaws concise reading, the paragon of self-centeredness; if he could manage to read beyond
the tradition readily available to him, he could be certain that he was duplicating the work that
other scholars had already compiled. This deeply tragic note, the reminder to the reader that even
Casaubons first wife, as it were, is the victim of an egoistic delusion, renders Casaubon all the
more pathetic both to us and to Dorothea. Dorothea is, appropriately, startled and anxious.
Ladislaws clarification that merely the Germans have taken the lead in historical inquiries, and
they laugh at results which are got by groping about in the woods with a pocket-compass while
they have made good roads, spurs in Dorothea a pang at the thought that the labour of her
husbands life might be void (240). Ladislaws jab is the annihilating pinch that consolidates
for Dorothea the realization that her life, in dedicating herself second-hand and futilely to her

36

Considering how deeply George Eliot herself is steeped in German philosophy and philology, and how much of a
polyglot George Eliot is, and how insular and national the British novels frame of reference was before, ultimately
(or at least according to Ashton), the Romantics and Carlyle interjected French and German philosophy into the
British novelistic tradition, this is also an acute in-joke.

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husbands intellectual endeavors is, by the transitive property, as useless as the one whom she
serves.
The chapters conclusion, with its familiar invocation of our stupidity, constitutes the
refrain which echoes throughout the text in a variety of forms. The injunction to clear up our
confused ideas, to transcend our egoism and isolation, to orient ourselves generously to the
world, are all contained in this conclusion:
We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme
selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier
to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr. Casaubon, and become wise and
strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness which is no
longer reflection but feelingan idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the
solidity of objectsthat he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and
shadows must always fall with a certain difference. (243)
Egoism here is directly invoked, and we take the world as an udder, and take our primacy at
the center of that world for granted, as if its truth were established for us in the way that a
mothers nourishment is automatically provided to its offspring. Self-centeredness and egoism,
our vanity, is easier than the strength and wisdom that sympathy requires; but the undeniable fact
is that, at least in as much as we all imagine ourselves to be the center of the worldthe fact
undeniably dramatized by all of the characters of Middlemarcheach is, ultimately, merely an
other center of the world. And in as much as we all recognize ourselves as the centers of the
world, by extension, the world has many equivalent centers. This passage is perhaps the clearest,
as Argyros and Nestor demonstrate, statement in George Eliots work of what, exactly,

193

constitutes sympathy in her novels: it is the recognition of ones own self-centeredness by


recognizing the equivalent and forgivable self-centeredness of all other people.
Spinozas philosophy in the Ethics is analogous to this estimation of the lot of humans.
Unlike Hobbes or his descendants, who ascribe to the human animal a ruthless and destructive
self-centeredness that ultimately seeks to undo or destroy the other as a competitor for scarce
resources, Spinoza nevertheless recognizes that in each subjects desire to preserve him- or
herself, there is a certain egoism that is assumed and necessary. The bonds that we form with
othersthat we must form with others, as it wereare central to the project of selfpreservation.37 This is crucial in the transition from Spinozas metaphysical ethics to his
political-philosophical theory. Operatively, we are singularitieseach human consciousness is
an individualized manifestation of immanent, material Nature (or God)and each singularity
typically lacks the power to change the larger, governing social structures. Only by combining
with like individuals can any power be manifested or change be effected. Sympathy is, in George
Eliot, how a version of multitude can be constituted. Thus the critique that George Eliot lodges in
the heart of the novel is that self-centered egoism keeps us from seizing upon the transformative
potential of multitude, the ability to become more powerful and effective. Dorotheas
interventions in Lydgate and Rosamonds lives at the end of the novel are therefore only
plausible because she has undergone the decentering reorientation that an education in sympathy
provides.
As Spinoza argues in the Ethics, if, for example, two individuals of entirely the same
nature are joined to one another, they compose an individual twice as powerful as each one

37

Herein lies the Spinozist roots of the materialism that develops in Feuerbach and Strauss as a recognition of the
primal rootedness of the material man in the species. From here, the insistence on communal action and
transformation that appears in Marx as the political activity first of historical materialism, and later of
communismand later still, what Hardt and Negri label commonism.

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(IV.P38s).38 The union of Ladislaw and Dorothea, alike and fit for each other as they are, begets
a singularity composed of their two individual natures in such a way as increases the ability to
act for both. As we shall see in Felix Holts development, this is the realization that combination
works to increase the efficacy of each individuals conatus by yoking that striving to the pursuit
of a common good. As if an implicit critique of the social bonds of marriage, which link two
singularities indivisibly, this vision of sympathy by way of combination encourages individuals
to pursue those social ties that best benefit them mutually without regards to external ideological
structures or pressures. Perhaps the biggest tragedy expressed in Middlemarch is that the external
worldreplete with ideologies generated out of the confused ideas of manstands in the way of
this organic and free composition of multitudes, be it in the form of families, marriages, or
mentorships.39 By recognizing in others the proliferation of equivalent centers of self, the
subject comes to know itself as a singularity that is freely and radically oriented by way of the
refusal of orientation. It may seem a paradox, but there is a radical freedom in the eschewal of
the strictures of orientation grounded in superimposed ideological beliefs, one that George Eliot
herself knew so well. Why insist on divorce or marriage when the felt bond of sympathy is far
more powerful than socially recognized ties? Her marriage to Lewes is a performance of this
confluence of sympathy, the coming-together of like individuals in order to form a more
powerful force. In the conclusion of this lessona conclusion which is not the proper conclusion
of the book, wherein Ladislaw and Dorothea marry in defiance of the dead hand of Casaubons
willwe see the way in which Dorothea parlays her awakening to others, attempting, in

38

The vagary attendant to the specificity of exactly the same nature is open to interpretation; preserved as
ambiguity, it is perhaps Spinoza at his most romantic, as George Eliots gloss on the concept appears to ratify.
39
Here one must only call to mind the progressive vision of kinship offered by Silas Marner, and the choice that
Eppie makes to the informal bonds of family with Silas over the blood relations claimed by Cass, or the relationship
that Romola has toward her spiritual guide and mentor Savanarola, which allows for (briefly) the development of a
powerful social force by way of accepted influence and mentorship.

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moments of demonstrable communion and sympathy, to educate the sympathies of her fellow
Middlemarchers.
Dorotheas transformation persists beyond the death of her husband, and her
confrontation with the codicil to the will, which disinherits her if she marries Ladislaw, has the
effect of spurring Dorothea to a realization that her awakening has a purpose over-and-above
mere sympathy. The decentering that she experiences blossoms into an orientation toward a
specific other; at the same time that she is to realize that there are countless others outside of
ourselves striving for their own preservation, there is one to whom she is most closely indebted.
She might have compared her experience at that moment to the vague, alarmed
consciousness that her life was taking on a new form, that she was undergoing a
metamorphosis in which memory would not adjust itself to the stirring of new organs.
Everything was changing its aspect: her husbands conduct, her own duteous feeling
towards him, every struggle between themand yet more, her whole relation to Will
Ladislaw. Her world was in a state of convulsive change; the only thing she could say
distinctly to herself was, that she must wait and think anew. One change terrified her as if
it had been a sin; it was the violent shock of repulsion from her departed husband, who
had had hidden thoughts, perhaps perverting everything she said and did. Then again she
was conscious of another change which also made her tremulous; it was a sudden strange
yearning of her heart toward Will Ladislaw. It had never before entered her mind that he
could, under any circumstances, be her lover. (532)
Dorotheas realization (that Casaubons self-centeredness led him to perversion, a moral laxity
that in distorting the truth actively, willfully misconstrued her) effects a permanent alteration.
The fact that Casaubon so thoroughly did not know herdid not know that only now, much

196

later, did she entertain any thought of a love for Ladislawthoroughly upsets her. This is the
effect of ego she (and the reader) come to see: it is the cultivation of confused ideas of others that
grow out of self-interest and willful self-distortion. The human mind, in its pursuit of an ideal
fiction that suits the conception it has of itself, will stoop to do violence to the perception of
others in such a way, as we see in the codicil, that has material effects on others lives. Dorothea,
in her sympathy, is repulse[d] by Casaubon, and the egoism that he represents becomes a
talisman and cautionary tale for her as she moves forward. Dorothea is permanently altered: all
this vivid sympathetic experience returned to her now as a power: it asserted itself as acquired
knowledge asserts itself and will not let us see as we saw in the day of our ignorance (846). In
yet another rehearsal of the organic metaphors and similes used throughout the novel explored at
greater length in the preceding chapter, Dorothea is now a part of that involuntary, palpitating
life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her
eyes in selfish complaining (846).40 Confused ideas, once they have been resolved and
corrected into adequate or truthful ideas of the world around us, replace our former error; once in
possession of correct ideas, we cannot backslide into the darkness of the egoistic falsehood.
Thereafter, Dorothea yearn[s] towards the perfect Right, that it might make a throne within her,
and rule her errant will (846).41

40

This passage, in its use of the phrase mere spectator would appear to be a direct rebuke to the self-centered
mechanism of Adam Smiths version of sympathy, which, as elaborated earlier, requires the projection of self into
an imaginative cognate of the others suffering, or as in Jaffes formulation, renders sympathy a specular function,
or for Kornbluh, an economic transaction. That spectatorship is mere and is syntactically linked to selfish
complaining points out that that version of sympathy is nothing more than egoism in a different form, and to be
rejected in favor of the more generous recognition of equivalent centres of self.
41
Several biographers, chief among them Margaret Crompton, have made much of a possibly apocryphal story of a
Cambridge stroll George Eliot took with Frederick Meyers, whereupon she declared that the three responsibilities of
man were God, Immortality, Duty (182). Early biographical retellings of this episode have given it significance in
George Eliot criticism, with an emphasis on that final termso that many readings of George Eliot either
consciously or inadvertently turn on the conception of duty in her novels. There is, perhaps, no doubting that
personal responsibility is an important trope in her novels, and certainly any ethics necessarily implicates some
version of a duty. As Jenny Uglow notes, however, instead of seeing the concept of Duty in relation to God and

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Thus, the book ends necessarily with a vision of the transformative communication of
this sympathy to others. As Spinoza might argue, sympathy is not a passive affectthough it
may involve orientation and the ignition of interest, it necessarily involves action and direction, a
vector, an orientation towards, and an extension to, an other. So sympathy is useless if it is kept
to the self; then it gets perverted into pity, or the Smithian form of sympathy which involves the
egoistic projection of self into the presumed pain or suffering of another, but which nevertheless
never transcends the parameters of self.
In conclusion, in the denouement of the plot that links the fates and public opinions of
Bulstrode, Will and Lydgate, Dorothea sees clearly to her best application of sympathy. Refusing
to believe the worst of Lydgates motives, and seeking to redeem him in the public opinion of
Middlemarch, Dorothea summons him. Dorothea awaited his arrival with eager interesther
thought was out over the lot of others, and her emotions were imprisoned. The idea of some
active good within her reach, haunted her like a passion, and anothers need having once come
to her as a distinct image, preoccupied her desire with the yearning to give relief, and made her
own ease tasteless (816-817). Dorotheas experience has left her restless with herself; she must
now extend her sympathy to others in order to feel satisfied. It is no longer possible for her to
retreat into the self: her own ease is tasteless, empty. Her extension of sympathy to him,
pour[ed] outin clearness from a full heart, is the first assurance of belief in him that had
fallen on Lydgates ears (818). The effect of this belief in the otherin Dorotheas ability to
know another human so well as to be able to wade through the murky untruths propagated about
to him to a knowledge of his essential motivationsis that of contagious shock. As Teresa
Brennan notes about the affects, they can be communicated, although we may not empirically

Immortality, as the concatenation of them in this biographical interlude suggests, we might be better served by
looking towards her investments in Spinoza as the origin point for her belief in personal responsibility (56).

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know exactly how. In a kindred move, George Eliot calls upon the language of electricity and
light in order to describe the effect of this sympathy on Lydgate: The presence of a noble
nature, generous in its wishes, ardent in its charity, changes the lights for us: we begin to see
things again in their larger, quieter masses, and to believe that we too can be seen and judged in
the wholeness of our character. That influence was beginning to act on Lydgate (819). As in
Dorotheas encounters with Ladislaw, Lydgates lights change; the presence of a sympathetic
soul is almost literally enlightening. Lydgate likens it to a religious experiencean echo of the
famous Preface that calls for the chronicle of a new St. TeresaThis young creature has a heart
large enough for the Virgin Mary.She seems to have what I never saw in any woman before
a fountain of friendship towards men.her love might help a man more than her money (826).
Dorotheas generosity of spirit is far more powerful in effecting change that the monetary relief
of Lydgates debts, though it is clear that that loan is the pragmatic effect of Dorotheas
sympathy. After all, as the narrator reminds the reader, There are natures in which, if they love
us, we are conscious of having a sort of baptism and consecration: they bind us over to rectitude
and purity by their pure belief about us; and our sins become the worst kind of sacrilege which
tears down the invisible altar of trustDorotheas nature was of that kind (829). In this way,
she is similar to Reverend Tryan in Janets Repentance; her nature is transcendently generous,
and her ability to believe the best about another, holding up an ideal for others in her believing
conception of them, is what marks both of these characters (829). It is crucial this passage uses
the language of ideals and idealization; in a novel rife with the wrong kinds of idealization,
ideals of others, this passage self-consciously invokes the correct kind of an idealan ideal for
others, an essential optimism.

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Dorothea carries this avocation into an extension of her sympathy toward Lydgate,
seeking to reconcile the spouses. Would she accept my sympathy? Dorothea wonders aloud to
Lydgate, acknowledging the fact of Rosamonds intense egoism (823). So when Dorothea comes
around to meeting with Rosamond, she has already received a shock of that live wire Ladislaw,
and is primed for a transformative experience.42 Rosamond has been rendered receptive, at the
very least, by her earlier shock: she could not avoid meeting [Dorotheas] glance, could not
avoid putting her small hand into Dorotheasand immediately a doubt of her own
prepossessions began to stir within her (851). Dorothea, seizing the opportunity to confront an
arch-egoist who is capable of subjecting Lydgate to the same measure of pain she received from
Casaubon, speaks her lesson in plain English: Trouble is so hard to bear, is it not? How can
we live and think that any one has troublepiercing troubleand we could help them, and
never try? (853). The rhetorical question inverts the condition that sympathy entails: by asking
how we couldnt be open to the amelioration of others suffering, the construction highlights the
inherent rightness of the prescribed action. (Pace Spinoza: He who has a true idea at the same
time knows that he has a true idea, and cannot doubt the truth of the thing [Ethics II.P43]). The
translation of this experience into persuasion is akin to the didactic thrust of George Eliots
narrator, and the experience of speaking it overwhelms Dorotheashe was completely swayed
by the feeling that she was utteringThe emotion had wrought itself more and more into her

42

Just before Dorothea goes to meet Rosamond, Rosamond has once more tried to enslave Ladislaw to her charms,
but Ladislaw, aware that such game-playing has adversely affected Dorotheas estimation of him, lashes out at her.
Dont touch me! he said, with an utterance like the cut of a lash, darting from her and changing from pink to white
and back again, as if his whole frame were tingling with the pain of the sting (834). This reaction to her
insinuations, the feeling of it like a javelin-wound, incites Ladislaw to anger. He lashes further at her, striking a
significant blow to Rosamonds self-esteem: I never had a preference for her, any more than I have a preference for
breathing. No other woman exists by the side of her. I would rather touch her hand if it were dead, than I would
touch any other womans living (835-836). Rosamond, unaccustomed to being undesirable or rejected, while
these poisoned weapons were being hurled at her, was almost losing the sense of her identity, and seemed to be
waking into some new terrible existence (836). Her husband, excusing her absence to Will when he returns to visit,
calls it a slight nervous shock, uncannily using the language so usually associated with Ladislaw (839).

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utterance, till the tones might have gone to ones very marrow, like a low cry from some
suffering creature in the darkness (853). This feeling of being overwhelmed transfers to
Rosamond, who, with an overmastering pang, as if a wound within her had been probed, burst
into hysterical crying (853). This moment of emotional communion was a newer crisis in
Rosamonds experience than even Dorothea could imagine: she was under the first great shock
that had shattered her dream-world in which she had been easily confident of herself and critical
of others; and this strange unexpected manifestation of feelingmade her soul totter all the more
with a sense that she had been walking in an unknown which had just broken in upon her (854).
Once more, the shock: it is transformative and disorienting, intentionally, in that it shakes the
sleepwalking Rosamond into an acute awareness of the presence of others. The narration remarks
of Dorothea that She tried to master herself with the thought that this might be a turning-point
in three lives and that the fragile creature who was crying close to herthere might still be
time to rescue from the misery of false incompatible bonds (854). In spite of the intensity of the
encounter and the awakening of Rosamondor rather, because of the intensitythis moment of
awareness is ultimately doomed to failure. Rosamonds egoism is far more deep-seated than
others; it forms the only foundation upon which Rosamond knows herself. The evacuation of
that egoism would be the emptying of self, and without the spiritual and intellectual fortitude to
bear that sustained shock, Rosamond would be confronted with that brink in a way that would
not be plausibleunlike Dorotheas experience of disorientation in Rome, which is plausible.
Likewise, the intensity of the exchange means that in spite of Dorotheas best intentions to
communicate the experience of sympathy to another human being, her own passions get the
better of her: she was too much preoccupied with her own anxiety, to be aware that Rosamond
was trembling[and] the waves of her own sorrow, out of which she was struggling to save

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another, rushed over Dorothea with conquering force (855-856). Once more the liquid force of
passion overwhelms her and damps the current that could otherwise productively shock, and
Dorothea is pulled up in speechless agitation (856). Into this silence, Rosamond is led into an
empathetic action, but one which is decidedly not sympathetic, insofar as it retains the feeling
subjects sense of self-importance and projects the self egoistically into the position of the other.
Pauline Nestor explains the operation as empathy as depend[ing] on recognitionon the
perception of commonality between the giver and the recipient (36). This aligns with the
narrators brief characterization of the two as two women clasp[ing] each other as if they had
been in a shipwreck, and is further clarified when Rosamond, misled and confused by her own
estimation of Dorothea, attributes Dorotheas sorrow to a jealousy of Rosamonds aspiring hold
over Ladislaw (856). Thus, Dorothea succumbs to a movement of surprised attention,
profoundly shaken by Rosamonds failure of sympathy. Thus, the moment is over, and sympathy
has failedas empathy, too, must always fail. No wonder Rae Greiner bemoans the difficulty of
sympathy in the novel; even as it is attempted, as we see in this episode, there is no guarantee of
its success. Too many of us are well-wadded with stupidity to be able to sustain the
disorientation attendant to its efficacious transformation.
Nevertheless, If Art does not enlarge mens sympathies, it does nothing morally, as
George Eliot writes in a letter to her intellectual sparring partner, Charles Bray (GEL III, 111).
Art must be purposeful, George Eliot believes; it must intervene in the lives of the readers for the
better, must elevate them to a higher social purpose, and educate their feelings to be more
generous, more spontaneous, less attenuated. George Eliot does this by dramatizing the process
by which we come painfully into awareness of the others that the endlessly populate the

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periphery of our egos. We are shocked into this awarenessour consciousness, as a result of this
phenomenological encounter with another, is pried open.
It is, as mentioned above, not merely Middlemarch that seeks to portray this dynamic; her
early novels Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss both contain more rudimentary versions of
this awakening and decentering. Likewise, Romola is perhaps another key location of this
educative process, though Romolas conversion is heavily coded within religious and historical
trappings, and often overshadowed by the arch-egoist Titos ambitious warpath in the novel. It is
only in Middlemarch, and only because of the strength of her metaphorsachieved, mature
sympathy would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrels heartbeatthat the lesson
congeals in such a way as to be absorbed by the reader as the fabric of the novel. These
metaphors of organic life point to the very interdependence of all life, which were explored in
more depth in the preceding chapter. In the two chapters to follow, I will work through readings
of two scenes of educationin Daniel Deronda and in Felix Holt, the Radicalwherein the
activity of sympathy is elaborated and performed.

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CHAPTER THREE: WHAT AM I TO DO?: KNOWLEDGE AND PRAXIS IN CHAPTER 36 OF


DANIEL DERONDA
The more knowledge a man has, the better hell dos work; and feelings a sort o knowledge.
(Adam Bede 556)
Everything dependson the nature affected, and the force that stirs it. (Daniel Deronda 711)

Daniel Deronda is nowas opposed to Middlemarchthe most commented-upon text in


George Eliots oeuvre: there have been nearly 150 substantial publications on the novel in the
twenty-first century, a figure which drops off considerably as one moves backward historically.
It is perhaps because her final novel is considered by many as the harbinger of modernismthat
new form of literary expression heralded by George Eliots admirer Henry James and later
instantiated by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce in elements that can be traced more directly to
George Eliots last novel than any other characteristically Victorian text. It could also be that the
novel is an early and nuancedthough not unproblematicexploration of nineteenth-century
Judaism and Zionism. Or it could be the way in which the formal divergences of the novel, its
striking separation and marriage of the two plotlines of the novel, play up the value of
contingency and chance in ways that warp the fabric of literary realism. All of these account for
a significant amount of recent interest in Daniel Derondaand will be the subject of further
discussion in the final chapter of this dissertation.
But one must move back through the twenty-first century to the mid-twentieth century,
and earlier, to reach the moment in Daniel Deronda criticism where the questions were much
more fundamental than they have since become. One such criticHarold Fisch, publishing his
critical reading of Daniel Deronda in 1965puts it this way in the refreshingly simple title of

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his essay: Daniel Deronda or Gwendolen Harleth? Taking for granted that the novel contained
two separate plotlinesthe essay asks, quite earnestly, which of these two plots is meant to be
read as primary. For, he says, reflecting on the criticism of his own age: To regard the Zionist
part of Daniel Deronda as the bad part and as a lamentable deviation from the true subject of the
novel, viz., the story of Gwendolen Harleth, is now a shibboleth of respectable critical opinion
(345). Fisch cites the influential early readings of George Eliots novels carried out by those
early arbiters of disciplinary importance, Henry James and F. R. Leavis, both of whom downplay
the importance of Derondas plotline, in spite of the name of the novel. But what Fisch mistakes,
and what reparative considerations of the novels Judaism sidestep in their overweening
concentration on the singular Judaic trope in the novel, is that the novel is ultimately a formal
whole-- and that, moreover, it emerges in organic dialogue with structural elements explored in
her earlier novels. This is where Leavis, too, critically missed the pointa point which Henry
James lampooned in his fictional-critical dialogue, Daniel Deronda: A Conversation. But what
James gets wrong, he also inadvertently gets rightconversation is very much the formal
point. Even if the two plots seem like disparate novels, they nevertheless impinge on each other;
and the form of the dialogue within the content of the novel plays off of Bakhtins concept of
heteroglossiathe proliferation and intersection of multiple voices in the text in order to refract
some crucial aspect of the text, which I identify here as its Spinozism.
There is a real danger in reading Daniel Deronda as if it were a bifurcated novel. In such
a reading as Annabel Herzog characterizes, there is the English plot of Gwendolens life and
marriage, and the Jewish plot of Derondas development and discoveries.1 The divergence of

Most critics, seeking to isolate either the feminist elements of the story, for which they anxiously read Gwendolen
Harleths story, or the Judiac/crypto-political elements, for which they read Derondas narrative, at some point find
it necessary to reinscribe the schism between these two plots. Strategies vary widely, but are always fraught with
some anxiety, as reflected, for instance, in Wilfred Stones biased characterization of a Gwendolen story, all vital

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these plots is never as absolute as the criticism suggests, however, and the two plots are braided
patiently together over the course the novel with contingencies and chancewhich, admittedly,
structurally strain at the fabric of the realist novel. The most consistent point of intersection,
however, is in Gwendolen and Daniels burgeoning relationship, grounded as it is in scenes of
pedagogy and conference. So I side with Herzog, ultimately, in seeking a reading of the novel
that situates it as a novel about interrelations and interdependency (37). Indeed, the very fact of
interdependency is the point: the common ground of Deronda and Gwendolens relationship is
both the thinnest, and tautest, point of the two plots interrelatedness and impingement.2 This
common ground is instantiated in the form of dialogue between these two characters, and so the
centrality of discourse in the novel is that it acts as the connector between the otherwisediverging plotlines.
To read for the moments of interrelation and interdependence, one must seek out the
points in the text when Daniel Deronda and Gwendolen abut, the nodes about which the two
plots are braided. What is remarkable when one considers these encounters, too, is that they take
on a singular form in relation to the rest of the novel scenes of dialogic education in which
Gwendolen submits to be spiritually and ethically guided by Daniel Deronda.3 Up to this point in
the novel, Henry Alley points out, the education of Gwendolen Harleth has been the more
understated of the two stories, but here assumes dramatic flourish (147).

life, and a Deronda (or Jewish) story, heavy with intellectual freight (25). Indeed, the choice of characterization of
the apparently-divergent plotlines is the primary barometer of the critics sympathies and criticisms.
2
Interdependency is very much the preferred term. Reverting to terms like organicism or organic whole, both
favored by the Scrutiny school, or unity, risks what Jerome Beaty points out would be an intentional distortion,
reduction, or disproportioning of the novel in order to insist on a thematic homogeneity (18). Interdependence
preserves both sides of the novel, recognizing that they are in some way divergent, but refusing to seamlessly blend
the two elements in order to reveal an overarching grand narrative.
3
Henry Alley remarks that Chapters 35 and 36 comprise a turning point in the novel (147) in that they
demonstrate a change to the narrative rhythm of the novel whose four dialogues createa definite crescendo of
psychological tension and technical virtuousity (152)

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Although there are a number of instances in which Deronda and Gwendolen collide,
Chapter 36, almost wholly framed out in dialogue, is the fixed point of intersection in the novel,
and most clearly embodies forth the pedagogic purpose of the novel, and concerns itself, more
specifically, with the ethical value of sympathy. To return to the beginning of George Eliots
career, in Janets Repentance, sympathy is rendered as the image of one flame bending towards
another, an ethereal organic analogy to a similarly abstract action rooted in orientation and
attention, an immaterial exhortation difficult to translate into practice. The imperative to
sympathy comes to its apex in Middlemarch, whose didactic conclusion is for the ethical subject
to achieve a recognition of equivalent centres of self. This imperative is developed in the
expansion of Dorotheas consciousness, and reinforced by her crypto-instinctual activity at the
end of the novel: bailing Lydgate out, and listening to his marital woes, and seeking to counsel
Rosamond; the keystone in this ethical bildungsroman is her marriage to Will thrown up against
the malicious posthumous meddling of Casaubon and the scandal-mongering of the community.
The result is the achievement of an ethical consciousness that approaches the mythical
knowledge encapsulated in Middlemarchs most famous passagethat we come into a perilous
awareness of the element of tragedy that undergirds the lives of all humans, and get closer to
hearing the squirrels heartbeat and the grass growing.
It is only in her last novel that the reader sees the development of a real praxis of
sympathy emerge in her novels. If Felix Holt enjoins that education is the means by which the
selfish, egoistic human can achieve an awareness of others (and further describes the continuum
between ethical, interpersonal sympathy and political ethics, as described in the following
chapter), and Middlemarch demonstrates that that awareness carries with it the imperative to
action, this metaphorized or performed ethic of sympathy is explicitly expressed in Chapter 36 of

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Daniel Deronda. In Daniel Deronda, the ethic of sympathy becomes praxisphilosophy


married to action. Chapter 36 gives specific content to the practice of this ethic of sympathy,
prescribing for Gwendolen, and by extension the reader, praxis. This elaboration turns on a scene
of instruction, which is the driving force of Esther Lyons growth in Felix Holt, the Radical. The
chapter, which revolves around the dialogue of Gwendolen Harleth and Daniel Deronda, steps
away from the potential opacity of figuration into the clarity and specificity of explanation.
Setting aside the structural device of narratorial interjection, such a crucial aspect of
Middlemarch, she relies instead on the time-honored philosophical device of Socratic dialogue.
Rachel Hollander, for instance, marks out what she considers Derondas ethical program,
insisting that the novel contains within it a wholly different-and-new ethical paradigm than her
earlier works, one grounded in a Levinasian ethics that presumes the absolute alterity of the
other. But, like Imraan Coovadias analysis of the Adam Smithian sympathy of George Eliots
work, both critics have stumbled into the central problematic of George Eliots fictional career
(as Suzy Anger proclaims)sympathy-- but both miss the mark inasmuch as they dance around
the equivalent centres of self that George Eliot warns we take heed of in heading off our
otherwise-natural egoism. Sympathy is not about an unknowable, absolute otheras Hollander
would have itnor about the pre-Freudian mechanisms of projection, as Coovadia and Greiner
via Adam Smith frame itbut rather about a phenomenological orientation towards, and
responsiveness towards, others. Compounding this is a respect for others that is grounded
reflexively in our own, unavoidable egoism: we do for others what we would like done for
ourselves. George Eliot develops, in the intermittent but ongoing dialogue between Gwendolen
and Deronda, the ways in which a praxis of sympathy, characterized by assisting, respecting, and
engaging others, actually reflects such benefits back to us by means of the expansion of our

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knowledge. Sympathy, insofar as it is the recognition of equivalent centres of self is the


burgeoning knowledge of the mimetic alterity of the otherthat the other, like us, is a mode of
expression of the same substance (to cast it in the Spinozist terms) but is also an other, not us.
Grounded inside of immanence, sympathy is about expanding our knowledge, which in turn
expands our ability to affect and be affectedwhich aids our conatus and allows us to progress
toward a blessed knowledge of the world (or God). Education, then, is a silent partner in the
ethical paradigm that Spinoza sets forth: it is a social apparatus by which our knowledge is
increased.4 It is not that Spinoza alone stresses the importance of education, by any means, but
that education is a means of ethical engagement, and the ways in which an expanded knowledge
begets more, intuitive, sympathy, is reflective of Spinozas ethics.
Indeed, the importance of education is noted by many critics, chief among them Linda K.
Robertson. Daniel Deronda, for Robertson, targets three of [Eliots] favorite ideas about
education: the limitations of the universities, the inadequate education of women, and the
importance of education as a lifelong pursuit (56). Rosamond is in Middlemarch, for instance,
the incarnation of the endgame of Mrs. Lemons school dismal as that ends up being for both
Rosamond and Lydgate. Likewise, Dorotheas imperfect education is foremost in Middlemarch;
as Rebecca Mead notes in her reflection on Middlemarch in a 2011 New Yorker, we often
overlook how dumbor at least undereducatedDorothea is. Esther Lyons in Felix Holt is a
meditation on the limitations of the education available to women; so too, is Mirah Lapidoth
largely ignorant about Judaism, and Gwendolen rigorously undereducated. Moreover, George
Eliot is committed to a lifelong education: it is a process, sometimes carried out in schools,
sometimes not, that is never wholly completed. In this, education is eminently Spinozist, as
education is the means by which ones conatus is augmented. Bartle Masseys night school is an
4

Megan Watkins, in The Affect Theory Reader, explores this idea in tremendous and pragmatic depth.

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important image in this frameworkthe day-laborer comes to him to receive tutelage in the
basics of education granted without thought to the upper-classes, but which, when bestowed
upon the working classes, enable them to advance themselves.5
Considered philosophically, George Eliot believes that in order for education to occur
and to be efficacious, there must be an encounter between a subject and a stimulus (a knowledge,
an experience, a revelation, an idea, an educator).6 But more than that, the subject must be
willing to receive, process, and internalize the knowledge conveyed; this constitutes the
difference between Gwendolen and Rosamond. And so, from the outset, George Eliot works to
imbue Gwendolen with a porosity and an receptivity that renders her a student; she is worn down
by circumstance, like Dorothea, and forced to reconsider her dearly-cultivated egoism. In
Chapter 36, Gwendolen, having married Grandcourt, comes into an awareness of the tremendous
misstep shes made. She had been visited by Lydia Glasher, who had warned her before marriage
and begged her not to marry Grandcourt so as to shore up her own claim to his hand and to her
sons inheritance of his estate. When Gwendolen is reduced to poverty by a change in economic
fortunes, figured in the opening gambling scenes in Leubronn, she takes stock of her options, and
Grandcourt renews his suit, pressing her for her hand. Keeping Lydia Glasher in mind, she
means to refuse his hand, but driven by her natureher love of ease, her anxiety about her
mothers future and her sisters economic prospects, and antagonistic to the prospect of

But as Robertson points out, there is no one education that fits all in George Eliots novels; each solution must be
developed or arrived at organically (59). Robertson is not incorrectand it is important in Victorian studies to frame
out the ways in which George Eliots beliefs about education slot into an ongoing discourse dominated by figures
like Carlyle, Mill, and Newman. And Robertsons analysis of the motif in George Eliots fiction sidesteps the
philosophical underpinnings of her beliefs; there is little in George Eliot that has not been philosophically
considered.
6
Erwin Hester rather benevolently labels such stimuli largely in the form of the men who dispense education in
George Eliots novelsmessengers, in that they effect the change of untutored, unprincipled subjects into
knowledgeable and ethical individuals.

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becoming a governess for Mompertsshe capitulates to his proposal and accepts his offer of
marriage.
Whatever innocence Gwendolen can claim for her motives, she is a haunted woman. On
the one hand, she is plagued by the evil eye Daniel Deronda cast upon her while she was
gambling at Leubronn. In a novel full of repetitions, it should not be surprising that Gwendolen
perpetually revisits the scene in her minds eye and in conversation with others. Daniel Deronda
is clearly at the heart of the novel, serving as its ethical compass. The opening scene, where the
narrator walks us through the thick, hanging smog of the gambling hall, directs us implicitly to
the gaze of Daniel Deronda: Was she beautiful or not beautiful? And what was the secret of
form or expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance? Was the good or evil genius
dominant in those beams? Probably evil; else why was the effect that of unrest rather than of
undisturbed charm? Why was the wish to look again felt as coercion and not as a longing in
which the whole being consents? (7). The ambiguity of the scene only ambiguously resolves
itself: the question of her good or evil rests only tenuously on the side of evil: she was probably
evil, not certainly evil.7 Wilfred Stone registers the reverberation that this scene has with apt
feminist criticisms of George Eliots other novelsIt is no secret that beautiful women have a
hard time in George Eliots novels; so when Deronda asks whether Gwendolen was beautiful or
not beautiful, it is only another way of asking whether she can be saved or notwhether she can
7

The novel is thick with an underlying discourse on contingency and probability, a factor that makes this narrator
different from the narratorial authority present in her other novels. In Daniel Deronda, George Eliot remarks
perpetually on the impossibility of certain knowledge, underscoring the role that chance and randomness play in the
lives of humans. This means that George Eliots commitment to realism is paradoxically both strengthened and
undermined: on the one hand, it demonstrates a more realistic knowledge of human lives and their susceptibility to
serendipity; on the other, it pushes at the outer bounds of realisms claims to mimesis. Of course we cannot know
everyone and everythingand on that point, the omniscience of George Eliots narrator in Daniel Deronda is
constantly unraveled. But just as certainly, human lives are governed, to some extent, by chance, and the realist
novel, in its structural arrangement of the lives of its characters, its micro-management of their fortunes and fates,
works directly against the possibility of contingency. By emphasizing the role of chance, often figured in this novel
as the trope of gambling, George Eliot is attempting to expand the scope of the realist novel to include the seemingrandom, the purely fortuitous, the accidental and the contingent.

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be made morally loveable (29). Hence the probably evil as if George Eliot is lampooning
her own tendencies to reduce attractive women to subjugated, but manipulative and ill-fated
sybils. Deronda, vis--vis our narrator, is an adequate reader of George Eliots oeuvre, and the
conclusion on the side of probablywhich impels him to come to Gwendolens assistance
laterregisters the complexity of the interpolated narrative voice in this opening passage.
Gwendolens face at the roulette table might possibly be looked at without admiration,
but could hardly be passed with indifference (9). This is, of course, an echo of the earlier
passage: though the perceiver may not be attracted to her visage, the reader cannot be
indifferent: her face is effective though the effect is indeterminateand so the ambiguity
encapsulated in the tension between might possibly and could hardly is preserved. In this
passage, the narrative overlay of the narrators voice onto Derondas thoughts and sensibilities is
compounded by George Eliots own tendencies, biases and judgments. Stone points to George
Eliots letters, arguing that George Eliots own position toward gambling was one of wholesale
rejection
I am not fond of denouncing my fellow-sinners, but gambling is a vice I have no
mind to, it stirs my disgust even more than my pity. The sight of the dull faces
bending round the gaming tables, the raking-up of the money, and the flinging of
the coins towards the winners by the hard-faced croupiers, the hateful, hideous
women staring at the board like stupid monomaniacsall this seems to me the
most abject presentation of mortals grasping after something called a good that
can be seen on the face of this little earth. Burglary is heroic compared with it. I
get some satisfaction in looking on from the sense that the thing is going to be put
down. Hell is the only right name for such places. (GEL V 312)

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Indeed, George Eliot is careful, typically, to withhold strong judgment in her novelsespecially
any judgment couched in apparently moralistic termsbut she does not withhold such judgment
here in her letter, the gambling hall likened, as it is, to hell on earth.8 The hateful, hideous,
monomaniacal women gamblers are transposed in Deronda into the ambivalently attractive
features of Gwendolen whose indeterminacy reflect back through her the gambling taking place
at her hand. The larger result of this speculative passage is that Derondas glance is tempered by
an inward debate which gave to his eyes a growing expression of scrutiny, tending farther and
farther away from the glow of mingled undefined sensibilities forming admiration (10).
Scrutiny, in itself a neutral expression, in this figure only tends away from the ambiguously
determined complex of affects that compose a feeling of admiration. His glance is ultimately
undetermined, only seeming to drift in the direction of not-admiring, in itself a vexing rehearsal
of indeterminacy. But his neutral gaze transfixes Gwendolen, and arrests her in a moment that
she comes to revisit over and over again:
her eyes met Derondas, and instead of averting them as she would have desired
to do, she was unpleasantly conscious that they were arrested: how long? The
darting sense that he was measuring her and looking down on her as an inferior,
that he was of a different quality from the human dross around her, that he felt
himself in a region outside and above her, around her, and was examining her as a
specimen of the lower order, roused a tingling resentment which stretched the
moment with conflict. (10)
8

Jesse Rosenthal makes a compelling argument that George Eliot hates gambling because it is indicative of the
ways in which individuals misunderstand[] themselves in relation to the law of large numbers (797), which he
patiently and astutely demonstrates through a variety of informing Victorian discourses on gambling, probability,
statistics, and tendency. This misunderstanding, and George Eliots loathing of it, recontextualizes her loathing in a
Spinozist light, however, as it underscores a distaste for the inadequate knowledge of individuals. Individuals,
Rosenthal remarks, tend to imagine that any given spin of the roulette wheel is linked to the next, although it is
notexcept in the sense that the law of large numbers means that probability sorts itself out in an increasingly
condensed and identifiable tendency if taken in a large enough sample (778).

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She is only guessing at the content of his gaze, reading intuitively the conflict registered in the
narrators depiction of his gaze. Gwendolen is clearly riddled with guilt and anxiety in Leubronn,
haunted in the wake of learning of Lydia Glashers claim to Grandcourt. She has fled to
Leubronn because she has come to the conclusion, I believe all men are bad, and I hate them,
and as she begs of her mother, dont interfere with me. If you have ever had any trouble in your
own life, remember it and dont interfere with me. If I want to be miserable, let it be by my own
choice (154-155). 9
It is in this misanthropic misery that Gwendolen stands imperiously at the roulette-table,
and she is plagued by Derondas gaze like a pressure which begins to be torturing (11).
Though long accustomed to the admiring gazes of men, she, reeling from the shock of
Grandcourts premarital indiscretions, has come to eschew her belief in romantic love and
marriage that had otherwise animated her mischievous coquetry. But though many were now
watching herthe sole observation that she was conscious of was Derondas, and after staking
all of her money on one last, lost placement, she turned resolutely with her face towards
Deronda and looked at him, only to register the smile of irony in his eyes as their glances met
(11). Though we know that Derondas antipathy to gambling is seconded in the narrators
condemnation of it as a vice, we nevertheless come to know Deronda well enough to know that
the irony in his eyes is meant to be gentle, and not an absolute judgment or reproofhis later
redemption of Gwendolens turquoise necklace ratifies this. Besides his superciliousness and
irony, it was difficult to believe that he did not admire her spirit as well as her person, the
narrator admits, but In Gwendolens habits of mind it had been taken for granted that she knew
what was admirable and that she herself was admired (11-12). Her reception of Derondas gaze
9

There is a paradoxical echo of the conclusion of George Eliots own epistolary reflection on gambling halls
wherefrom she concludes that though the the air, the waters, the plantations of Homburg are all perfectonly
man is vile (GEL V 312).

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complicates this preconceived notion of Gwendolens. The narrators underscoring of


Gwendolens habits of minds reminds us that her orientation toward the world is rigid and
unwavering, that her faith in her attraction was the aggregate of a series of experiences and
perspectives that had concretized itself into something egoistically unshakable. But Gwendolen
is misreading Derondas superciliousness and irony: Deronda does not feel himself superior to
Gwendolen in particular, but rather to the vice of gambling; moreover, the tenor of the irony of
his smile is not reproving, as Gwendolen reads it. But both readings of his glance produce the
same end, which is to establish Deronda as an ethical compass in the text, and the power of
Derondas gaze is like the electric current rippling under Will Ladislaws skin, emitting shocks.
So it is that the ingrained habit of being admired had received a disagreeable concussion, and
reeled a little, but was not easily to be overthrown (12).
It remains, though, that the concussion Gwendolens fragile self-involvement has
received has a lasting effect on herthe impact of his gaze leaves a scar on Gwendolens psyche
and erodes the remnants of her pride. She cannot shake the memory of his seeming-rebuke. In
the moment it had struck her as an evil eye (10), a condensation of the gaze as a perversion of
the very ambivalence registered in the narrators question about Gwendolens character in the
opening scenes. She confronts Deronda in a later scene with her reading of his gaze: You did
not approve of my playing at roulette. How did you come to that conclusion? said Deronda
gravely. Oh, you cast an evil eye on my play, said Gwendolen, with a turn of her head and a
smile. I began to lose as soon as you came to look on. I had always been winning till then.
(330). Later, in the company of Grandcourt, she broaches the subject but backs away from the
implications of her reading of his gaze: in this moment, instead of attributing moral
condemnation to it, she teases it into a superstitious omen, merely having affected her luck. She

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cannot, in Grandcourts presence, acknowledge that Deronda had prefigured the very guilt that
persists under Gwendolens demeanor in the wake of her having accepted Grandcourts proposal.
She is vexed by her projection of Derondas presupposition about her character, but can no
longer pretend that it was unmerited; by dislocating the gaze into the superstitious figure of an
evil eye, she attributes to it a prescience and clairvoyance of her later moral stumbles. As such,
the gaze has crystallized into an internalized accusation, and she has turned the gaze in on
herself; lacking moral guidance from all quarters, and accustomed so long to the force of her
own habits of mind, she finds herself for once and definitively on the wrong side of a moral
quandary. Grandcourt interrupts, keeping Deronda from responding to the allegation levied at
him, but he does silently respond, and in Gwendolens sidelong glance at him, she registers
his eyes fixed on her with a look so gravely penetrating that it had a keener edge for her than his
ironical smile at her losses (330). This penetrating gaze carries with it a deeper force for
Gwendolen, who intuits from this grave expression a disturbing kind of form and expression
which threatens to affect opinionas if ones standards were somehow wrong (330-331).
Deronda is an inadvertent instructor of opinion and behavior; he cannot help but sway the beliefs
and inclinations of those he gazes upon. Gwendolen feels simultaneously confirmed and
challenged by this otherwise neutral expressionit remarkably has no adjectival modifiers other
than penetrating, which denotes only the force of his stare. It sparks in her an uneasy longing
to be judged by Deronda with unmixed admirationa longing which had had its seed in her first
resentment at his critical glance (331; emphasis added). Gwendolen is unsettled by his glance,
but in such a way as spurs her to desire his admiration, which, we can infer from her
interpretation of his gaze as accusatory, means that she desires to become better in his
estimationwhich would require her, she feels, to become better. She is governed by a desire

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begotten by his expression, not rooted in a sexual desire for him, as with Esther Lyons in Felix
Holt, but rather by the edifying morality condensed in his gaze.
In a subsequent discussion in the same scene, when Gwendolen finally finds herself alone
with him, she confronts him directly, attempting to puzzle out the standard by which she feels
judged. Do you object to my hunting? said Gwendolen, with a saucy movement of the chin. I
have no right to object to anything you choose to do. You thought to had a right to object to my
gambling, persisted Gwendolen. (332). Gwendolens wheelhouse of flirtatious devicesthe
saucy movement of the chinis compromised by Derondas impassive response. Deronda
espouses an ethic of non-judgment consistent with George Eliots larger narrative-ethical arc.
The absence of an ethos of good and evil in George Eliot accords with an interpretation
of Spinoza that Gilles Deleuze posits: a rigorous absence of a transcendent Good and Evil in
Spinozas Ethics: Ethics overthrows the system of judgment (23). It is this which demarcates
secular ethics from deist moralitya fact that George Eliot adheres to.10 So it is that the
opposition of values (Good-Evil) is supplanted by the qualitative difference of modes of
existence (Deleuze 23). The axis of good-evil is unseated and replaced by a discernment of that
which is good for us, and that which is bad for usan evaluative model that enjoins us to
recognize that which inhibits or empowers us.
We are not to leap to judgment: in a move typical of her final novel, George Eliot
eschews equivocation and instead directly expresses this ethic of non-judgment; as Deronda says
with his usual directness of gazea large-eyed gravity, innocent of any intention, I was
sorry for it [for the condemnation Gwendolen is interpreting]. I am not aware that I told you of
my objection (332). Crucially, Derondas gaze it innocent of any intention, but he

10

See the introduction to the dissertation for a more thorough discussion of this point.

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nevertheless repeats the look from which Gwendolen recoils. The narrator nevertheless confirms
the power of Derondas gaze:
His eyes had a peculiarity which has drawn many men into trouble; they were of a
dark yet mild intensity, which seemed to express a special interest in every one on
whom he fixed them, and might easily help to bring on him those claims which
ardently sympathetic people are often creating in the minds of those who need
help. In mendicant fashion, we make the goodness of others a reason for
exorbitant demands on them. That sort of effect was penetrating Gwendolen.
(332)
Those men who are organically and naturally good have no control over the interpreted effects of
their gazes, as the narrator explains. There is a real ambivalence in the description of his gaze,
and ambivalence is not sustainable in the minds of those weakened by egoism and failings.
Instead, they divine in such an ambivalent look an ardent sympathy that will serve to ease their
minds. Indeed, according to the logic of the passage, Gwendolen is helpless to want to be judged
by Deronda: she looks to receive the imputed accusation she projects into the gaze by way of his
apparent sympathy. Derondas inherent sympathy is here stressed: it is a faculty that he has by
nature, but which he has, as it were, also inadvertently cultivated. By this time, of course, the
reader knows of his self-sacrifice for Hans Meyrick, and his rescue of Mirah Lapidoth, two acts
that Deronda unconsciously perpetrates because of the force of his goodness. Readers should not
despair, however; even though Deronda has these qualities naturally as a result of his ardently
affectionate nature and inborn lovingness (171), we readers have learned that even where
these qualities are improperly formed at birth, they can be learned and cultivated. Indeed, as
Spinoza remarks Education itself adds to natural inclination (Ethics III.P55S). Esther Lyons in

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Felix Holt is a paramount exampleshe permits her sympathies to be expanded and educated by
Felix Holt, who in turn has been taught by his life experiences. In Middlemarch, Dorotheas
misguided yearning for martyrdom is mitigated by experience and by repeated encounters with
Will Ladislaw until the impulse to act sympathetically towards others becomes a spontaneous
outgrowth of her changed character. This trope of instruction permeates George Eliots novels,
and helps evolve the opaque imagery of her earliest works (the bending flames of Janets
Repentance) into a two-fold praxis. On the one hand, there is the educational impulse in those
who have become ethical creatures: they are unconsciously beholden to the Spinozist imperative
to educate willing subjects into blessed, intuitive knowledge of godly, material immanence, of
our affective impingement on others. This is Daniels familiar rolethe role assumed by Felix
Holt and Will Ladislaw before him.
Gwendolen is an exemplar of the other side of that coin, the side inhabited by Janet
Dempster, Romola, Esther Lyons, and Dorothea before herthose characters, largely female,
who are not so perfectly formed by nature, but who, because of the impact of those sympathetic
men around them, desire to become better; Spinoza admits that love of esteem is not contrary to
reason, but can arise from it (Ethics IV.P58). Their desire to become more esteemable creatures,
especially in the eyes of those they recognize to be ethically advanced, is a reasonable desire.
The flip side of the Spinozist ethical imperative to be an instructor is the willingness to be
instructed; indeed, Edwin Curley has noted, the geometrical structure of his Ethics is itself a
pedagogical tool for the determined reader. Over and above the content-driven intended effect of
the Ethics is a structurally-inherent effect as well. 11 Likewise, George Eliot is here burying a
pedagogic intention in Derondas passive bearing, read into it by those who have become willing
11

E. M. Curleys Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of Spinozas Ethics argues coherently that the
geometric structure of the Ethics is, itself, a macro-educational tool that structurally performs the effects ascribed to
the expansion of knowledge vis--vis the affects.

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to be taught: we are mendicants seeking instruction. In becoming beggars of sympathy, we are


begging for instruction in sympathy. The sympathetic subject is then infused, as it were, with the
impulse to assist: our claims are created in our minds, but projected and implanted into the
consciousnesses of those who are capable of sympathizing. As much as Gwendolen feels herself
interpellated as a sinner by the projected judgment of his gaze, her returning sallies likewise
interpellate Deronda as a pedagogue. And, as Spinoza points out of the ethical subject, The
good which everyone who seeks virtue wants for himself, he also desires for other men; and this
desire is greater as his knowledge of God is greater (Ethics IV.P37). Gwendolen implies
Spinoza: by invoking Deronda as an educator, she understands that he is an ethically superior
subject; as an ethically superior subject, he cannot but want to desire her increased knowledge,
she intuits. It is circuitous but astuteand Gwendolen is a sensitive barometer for personality.
Hitherto wracked by the abstracted knowledge of having wronged Lydia Glasher, driven
home by the poisonous diamonds mailed her with the attendant repetitive admonition,
Gwendolen is educated by Derondas glance. Her passive knowledge of wrong is transmuted in
the repetition of his evil eye into an active desire to do right. She has turned the corner quite
clearly in this moment, and thereafter seeks his instruction.
Deronda becomes aware of the growing responsibility he has inadvertently taken on,
when musing on Gwendolens characterhe supposes that That little affair of the necklace, and
the idea that somebody thought her gambling wrong, had evidently bitten into her (404) and he
becomes aware that there are characters whose natures grow or devolve everyday (403). But the
give-and-take of the burgeoning responsibility is likewise apparent to him: while some natures
retain impressions and grow or change, there is no necessary correlation between those
impressions and their development. Affect is never certain; one can aim to affect another, but

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cannot be sure that the affect will have its intended effect, or hit its mark. The recipient of the
affect must be willing to be affected in such interpersonal encounters; a teacher cannot
effectively educate a class of truly disaffected students. So, such impressibility tells both ways:
it may drive one to desperation as soon as anything better (404). The ambivalent flexibility of
our natures is foretold in Spinoza: we always seek, he claims, to do what we believe or imagine
to be best for ourselves, but the effect of those decisions is not always that a larger good accrues
to ourselves or those around us. We ordinarily strive to affirm, concerning ourselves and what
we love, whatever we imagine to affect with joy ourselves or what we love. On the other hand,
we strive to deny whatever we imagine affects with sadness ourselves or what we love (Ethics
III.P25). This natural self-seeking and self-indulgence is the ground of our inherent conatus,
through which we always seek to develop the affects that expand our ability to affect ourselves
and others, thereby increasing our joy. The complications ensue, and our best intentions are
thwarted, however, when we base such actions on inadequate ideas, as Falsity consists in the
privation of knowledge which inadequate, or mutilated and confused, ideas involve (Ethics
II.P35). Moreover, this falsity can stem either from our error or our ignorance; by way of
analogy, Spinoza explains that when we look at the sun, we imagine it as about two hundred
feet away from us, in spite of the real truth of the matter (II.P35). Because it appears to human
minds to be reasonable to make this deductive assumption, it is quite natural that it is our belief
that the sun is so close, as it appears to be close. Such inadequate ideas arise quite naturally,
with the same necessity as those ideas we have of the world which are accurate (II.P36). It is
not always our fault that our knowledge of the world is inadequate or compromised, but
regardless, the effects of our action on behalf of those inadequate ideaswhether derived from
ignorance or errorredounds upon us. Indeed, if we act upon adequate ideas, we are acting

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reasonably, but when we act from inadequate ideas, we act instead from passion (III.P2).12 In our
ignorance and clouded perceptions, we can just as easily turn good as bad; the force and impetus
of our actions derives from the irrationality of our thinking, the inadequacy of our ideas. Deronda
fears that in her desperation for judgment and moral resolve, she could as easily turn away from
the imputation of his evil eye to the more obviously, ostensibly ill will of Grandcourt, in
Derondas less complimentary construction, that remnant of a human being (404). So
Deronda implicitly resolves, out of his expansive sympathy, to be the educator that Gwendolen
seeks: The peculiarities of Derondas nature had been acutely touched by the brief incidents and
words which made the history of his intercourse with Gwendolen (413).
The tendency present in much criticism of Daniel Deronda that ultimately reduces or
flattens the character of Deronda must be avoided. He is not a mere pasteboard figure who
never does much more than stand back and approve or disapprove of the things that, in her
[Gwendolens] lesser narrow life, she does or does not do (Butler 60). He is not, strictly
speaking, merely some priggish, moralistic confessor as Evelyn Butler argues he is, nor indeed,
so much the prig that it is a marvel George Eliot doesnt even seem to notice what a prig he is
(61). In his embrace of Gwendolens interpellation, he begins to accept the vocation with which
he later becomes associatedthat desire, voiced at an early age as the desire to become a
Pericles or Washington, not a Porson or Leibniz (173), the desire to lead by example instead
of settling into the passive didacticism and pedantry of the classicist or philosopher. 13 The

12

The line between that which is passion and that which is affect can be hard to discern. Spinoza merely offers that
passions are those affects which, in their excess, cloud the ability to behave or act rationally. There is an argument,
however, to be made that the passions, in their counterpoint to reason, are nevertheless aids to the development of
virtuean argument that Matthew Kisner makes admirably in his 2008 article Spinozas Virtuous Passions.
13
As the only George Eliot novel that mentions Spinoza by name, it strikes me that the mention of Leibniz is also a
subtle means by which George Eliot foregrounds the intentional philosophical undercurrents of this, her final novel.
The contrast between the philosophies of Spinoza and Leibniz is contentious ground, as it was in their own time, and
is the subject of Matthew Stewarts eminently readable The Courtier and the Heretic: Spinoza, Leibniz and the Fate
of God in the Modern World (2007).

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interpellation is internalized before it is, at the end of the novel, presumably projected outwards
into the slot of his vocationto found a Zion in Palestine. But as Roberts points out in George
Eliots letter to Sophia Hennell, I think Live and teach should be a proverb as well as Live
and learn (GEL I 242). To this end, Carl Rotenberg is closer to the mark when he describes
Daniel Deronda as a crypto-psychoanalyst, imbued with those traits that Freud was to elevate to
professional requirementsempathy, sympathetic listening, responsivity, consolation,
compassion, all coupled with a satisfaction which derives from helping her redeem herself and
reestablish her sense of having meaningful goals (261).
Along these lines, Derondas conversations with Gwendolen become freighted with
lessons; instead of disavowing the pedantic impulse read into his bearing, he begins to embrace
the role. When Gwendolen proclaims that she finds fault with the world for being dull, he
responds that what we call the dullness of things is a disease in ourselves. Else how could any
one find an intense interest in life? (411). Such a retort affects Gwendolen, who had come to
believe in the need for stimulus and variety, and cultivated a deep commitment to pleasure. She
accordingly takes this retort personally, taking for granted that Deronda knows her character, a
knowledge she has read into his glance, but which is not wholly there. Ah, I see! The fault I
find in the world is my own fault Do you ever find fault with the world or with others? Oh
yes. When I am in a grumbling mood. And hate people? Confess you hate them when they
stand in your waywhen their gain is your loss? We are often standing in each others way
when we cant help it. I think it is stupid to hate people on that ground. (412). Deronda is
patiently Spinozist; Spinoza is not a misanthrope but a realist when he concedes that most men
are selfish and egoistic; it is with regret that he announces this is so, but also with charityfor he
proceeds to systematically draft the means by which men can cast off that egoism. Hate,

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moreover, is disempowering, and so Deronda rationalizes the emotion away, preferring


something akin to charity, which although imperfect, permits himself and others to evolve.
Gwendolen is testing Derondas moral fiber: she tries to corner him into a confession of ill will,
of judgment. Deronda parries by responding to her imputation that there is no sense in hating
those who unwittingly do wrong: it is stupid to hate such people when they are acting out what
they believe their own best interest is. The challenge of her earlier coquetry and frivolity has
been likewise changed by what Deronda has come to know of Gwendolen, and the difficulty
with which she had seemed to raise her eyes to bow to him, in the first instance, was to be
interpreted now by that unmistakeable look of involuntary confidence which she had afterwards
turned on him under the consciousness of his approach (413). Deronda knows now that the
student is willing, and though such willingness on her end throws him into a tizzy of self-doubt
(What is the use of it all? I cant do anything to help her [413]), he nevertheless begins
adopting the role of Socratic sounding-board to Gwendolens halting missiles, at the risk of
being, in Grandcourts jaded eyes, a confounded nuisance, a fellow wanting to howl litanies
(416).
But it is not abstract, grandiloquent litany that interests Deronda most; as we see in the
chapters in which Deronda begins to pursue his intellectual knowledge of Judaism in order to
better understand Mirah, he is interested in ideas only inasmuch as they reflect or modify his
knowledge of human life. Gwendolen shares Grandcourts suspicion when she queries whether
he cared most about ideas, knowledge, wisdom, and all that (417). He does not deny interest in
themno good Spinozist would care to disavow ideas or wisdombut that an exclusive interest
in them is in itself an affectation. Deronda seeks not to be an abstracted lecturer, but a seminar
manager, evoking ideas from his interlocutors, trusting to their intelligence, rather than

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delivering ideas for ingestion. Pursuit of knowledge for its own sake does not increase ones
intuitive knowledge of the world. Spinoza explains in the fifth section of the Ethics that any
knowledge of the blessed kind cannot arrive from the first level of knowledgethe passive
reception of ideas, thoughts, or impressions from othersbut rather from the second order of
knowledgethe level of knowledge grounded in experience, evidence, proof and demonstration
(P28). And so, it makes a difference if the objects of interest are human beings, and in the best
sorts of knowledge, the objects are a mixturehalf persons and half ideassentiments and
affections flow in together (417). Thus Deronda recognizes that ideas must be mixed in some
measure with experience, sensuous human experience, for them to be ratified and strengthened,
and so gain the proper momentum towards their realization in blessed knowledge.
In keeping with a Spinozist conception of immanence, ideas are not immaterial things
that exist in the rarified, abstract or idealized consciousness of the thinker, as they do, say, in
Hegel. Instead, ideas carry material weight as expressive of the principles upon which the world
is founded. Inasmuch as thought is an attribute of God (Ethics II.P1) and In God there is
necessarily an idea, both of his essence and of every thing which necessarily follows from his
essence (II.P3), the order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of
things (II.P7). The human, itself only an extension (and God is an extended thing [II.P2]) of
God, can only ever have ideas insofar as it perceives the ideas of the affections of the body
(II.P23), as the idea of the mind is united to the mind in the same way as the mind is united to
the body (II.P21).14 But these ideas in Spinoza, and indeed in Marx, must be derived first from
an engagement with the world (through the body in Spinoza): in Marxs early philosophical

14

The structural equation of the order and connection of ideas and the order and connection of things, and the
idea of the mind [being] united to the mind in the same way as the mind is united to the body is what Deleuze
calls the parallelism of Spinozas thought. His immanence is consumed in the materialist leveling of its component
parts and in the relationships between these component parts, leading to Deleuzes planar notion of materiality.

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writings, this intercourse with the material world is precisely that which best forms our ethical
behaviors. Marxs early writing is constructed around a notion of humans as anthropological
beings: that is, before they are subjected to the intervention of ideology.
So what Deronda is describing is an education that is praxisspecifically, in this case,
with the interpolation of the sentiments and affections into the material of intellectual ideas, a
Spinozist praxis. Ideas are fruitless if they are not yoked to action; if they are not acted upon,
then they are not, as it were, either affective or effective; moreover, action must be discerned and
developed from knowledge or experience. There is a complex invocation of materialism here
elaborated at more length in the introduction to this work. But an affective praxis here is most
important: To delight in doing things because our fathers did them is good if it shuts out nothing
better; it enlarges the range of affectionand affection is the broadest basis of good in life
(417). Here Deronda invokes affection not in an abstract sense as a stand-in for affect, but
rather expands into meaning good will and care. These positive affects, as Spinoza repeatedly
notes, increase our perfectionwhich in turn increase our ability to know the world as it is,
augmenting our blessedness. The mind can undergo great changes, and pass now to a greater,
now to a lesser perfectionby joy, therefore, I shall understand in what follows that passion by
which the mind passes to a greater perfection (Ethics III. P11S) and as he notes in the opening
section, By reality and perfection I understand the same thing (II.D6). As we strive to increase
our affection for others, we increase our joy; by increasing our joy, we increase our perfection
we augment our blessed knowledge of the world, and also increase, in so many words, our
reality, or our materiality. Joyvia a care for othersis being invoked by Deronda as a way
to substantiate Gwendolen, to pull her from the paralyzing, dematerializing morass of self-pity

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and self-indulgence. Deronda, in this passage, parrots the Spinoza directly, and the literary
confirms the philosophical.
Spinoza pragmatically explains that For each one governs everything from his affect;
those who are torn by contrary affects do not know what they want, and those who are not
moved by any affect are easily driven here and there (III). Gwendolens paralysis indicates that
she does not know clearly what she wants, and increased paralysis makes her a passive
shuttlecock for the manipulation of others. Having reached this latter stage, Deronda can step in
to arrest the batted-about Gwendolen and advise that doing good for others is an end unto itself
inasmuch as it further materializes her, and enables her to continue to act for her own selfpreservation. Inaction entails that the person lacks power: but the more each one strives, and is
able, to seek his own advantage, that is, to preserve his being, the more he is endowed with
virtue (IV.P20). And, after all, No one strives to preserve his being for the sake of anything
else (IV.P25).
We cannot sit idly by and shape an ethics out of ideas of the world as abstract ethical
dicta or theologically-derived moral imperatives, as Spinoza, the young Marx, and Deleuze,
among others, remind us. To gather ones ideas solely from books without attention to the real is
to dwell in the lower realms of knowledge, and to risk not-really-knowing, that kind of
knowledge that derives solely from second-hand gathered impressions, hearsay, and rumor.
Spinoza admits that most of us live in this realm of knowledge: we are no intellectual angels.
George Eliot notes with great regret that it is precisely this kind of a knowledge that most women
receive. Gwendolens education, though of the highest level available to women of her class,
nevertheless takes its form from the strong starch of unexplained rules and disconnected facts
which saves ignorance from any painful sense of limpness. This fortified ignorance is, however,

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constructed out of materials that are shoddy and disconnected, and though Gwendolen has
taken care to fill in the gaps through novels, plays, and poems, she does not achieve a real
intellectual education. It is merely in her French and her music, the two justifying
accomplishments of a young lady, that Gwendolen has received a first-rate education (40).
Gwendolen can only indistinctly perceive her educational failings, without access to a model of
intellectual education, and her shortcomings and mediocrity are rarely challenged by the people
among whom she moves. After all, Gwendolen inhabits a world where At home, at school,
among acquaintances, she had been used to have her conscious superiority admitted; and she had
moved in a society where everything, from low arithmetic to high art, is of the amateur kind
politely supposed to fall short of perfection only because gentlemen and ladies are not obliged to
do more than they liked (263). Excellence and precision are never demanded of Gwendolen as a
pet of the upper-classes. Thus she always runs the risk of her imaginationfilling out her
knowledge in various ways, capable of changing the way she understands the object of her
study. By dint of looking at a dubious object with a constructive imagination, one can give it
twenty different shapes, the narrator chides (297). Without a solidly educated mind but
equipped with a lively imagination, Gwendolen runs the risk of distortion and supposition, of
transforming an indistinctly perceived object into a wide range of monstrous and inaccurate
forms.
It is only when she becomes conscious of her moral failures and is confronted by her
interpellation by Derondas ethical gaze that she becomes conscious that her knowledge of the
world has been unconsciously affected by the powerful inflow of material knowledge borne of
experience and action. In response to Derondas description of knowledge as the intermingling of
ideas with affections and sentiments, Gwendolen wonders if she can even understand that: she

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can only dimly realize that such a mixture has been absent in her education heretofore. In order
for her to begin to learn, however, she must be reduced to an empty vessel: her beliefs about her
self have to be emptied and undone. Grandcourts cruelty achieves this reduction, as in the wake
of it, she realizes that He delights in making the dogs and horses quail; that is half his pleasure
in calling them hisIt will come to be so with me; and I shall quail (427). The realization of
her helplessness before Grandcourt and his demand of her subjection have created the vacuum
which she seeks to fill with Derondas education. It is in this state that Gwendolen and Deronda
embark on the Socratic dialogue about ethical praxis that is the centerpiece of Chapter 36.
Thus, over the course of Gwendolens slow ethical maturation in the novel, there grows
an increasing attraction to and desire for Derondarendering their relationship an echo of Felix
Holt and Esther Lyons similar relationship, these latter determined by (sexual) desire from the
beginning. At first, this desire is little more than the desire for the presence of a confessor and
spiritual guide. But this desire for ethical guidance grows into a sexualized desire, especially
after the death of Grandcourt has freed her from the enslavement of marriage. Deronda
represents an absolute freedom and self-determination paradoxically linked to subjection. On the
one hand, Grandcourt requires Gwendolens enslavement and subjugation, a surrendering of the
will that also represents an obliteration of the selfa violation, as it were, of the ethicallyenabled Spinozist subject who, in seeking to better her own lot, strives to expand her ability to
affect and be affected. Grandcourt represents a foreshortening of that ability inasmuch as his
patriarchal power over her is figured as absolutely inhibitive. Grandcourt is a potentate who
makes[s] known [his] intentions and affect[s] the funds at a small expense of words (178), who
meant to be master of a woman who would have liked to master him (320). The narrator and
Gwendolen conspire to name this desire in Grandcourt to rob her of her will:

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Of what use was the rebellion within her? She could say nothing that would not
hurt her worse than submissionShe fancied that his [Grandcourts] eyes showed
a delight in torturing her. How could she be defiant? She had nothing to say that
would touch himnothing but what would give him a more painful grasp on her
consciousness. (427)
Grandcourts dominion is exercised throughout the novel on the dogs that populate his
household, and he eagerly pits them against each other, playing on their basic emotions. He does
the same to Gwendolen, she comes to realize: she is subjected to the tyranny of his arbitrary
mastery, all the more complicated because it is absolute; there is nothing she can do to break his
hold on her. As such, she has no room to move, to grow, to strive for perfection: she is locked
into paralysisa real inaction and the failure of agency, in contrast to what Markovits argues is
George Eliots pervasive prescription of inaction. This absolute loss of will and agency is far
different from her voluntary surrender of control to Deronda.
For Gwendolens subjection to Deronda is voluntary and willful. In Chapter 36, she
prostrates herself before what she construes as Derondas superior moral sensibility, that evil
eye that bespeaks an evolved ethical consciousness and probity. This submission is paradoxical
insofar as it surrenders the egoistic sense of self and subjectivity to a superior ethical beingin
exchange for an expanded sense of self that allows the subjected greater ability to act. She must
give herself up in order to become a more enabled subject. Eileen Sypher worries about this
trope in George Eliots fictions, the subjugation of the female character to the rescue or savior
narrative of the titular characters of George Eliots novels, those men who seek to discipline
women whose excessive desires not only lead to her own suffering, but also threaten the values
of the wider community whose representative he seeks to be (506). This is the case, Sypher

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argues, for Adam Bede and Felix Holtwherein Hetty Poyser and Esther Lyons are enjoined to
foreshorten their appetites for the good of the community. But the evolution available in a
reading of Daniel Deronda is that Gwendolens excessive desire exceeds Derondas ability to
govern it, and her subjection is, as in my interpretation, both real and not-real. Her performed
subjection must happen for her evolution and maturation to occurbut it paradoxically
eviscerates all evidence of voluntary subjection; this is perhaps best indicated in the anxiety and
animation of Gwendolens role in her encounters with Deronda.
Gwendolen, broken by Grandcourts imperious will, struggles to work out what she can
do to counterbalance the wrong she knows shes done to Lydia Glasher and her children; she is
consumed with the nagging guilt of having married him, a point driven home by the blow her
ego has received from Grandcourt. In the vain and egoistic Gwendolen, it is that which gives her
pause: she finds herself evacuated of the role she has long been accustomed to playing. She
knows herself to be broken, and knows, in turn, that she has broken a promise, but still she finds
herself tenuously prideful when reflecting on the story of Mirah Lapidoth. I have no sympathy
with women who are always doing right. I dont believe in their great sufferings, she petulantly
bemoans (438-439). She knows herself to be pitiful, and wants nothing more than sympathy; she
feels immense amounts of self-pity, which she inadvertently truly reflects on when she disavows
sorority with Mirah. Derondas response is pragmatic and patient, reflecting the crux of realism
outlined in Chapter 17 of Adam Bede, and writ large in the contrast between Hetty Poyser and
Dinah Morris; in that relationship, it is difficult to feel a real/readerly or narratorial sympathy
with either woman wholly, because she is, in the former instance, preternaturally vain and selfcentered, and in the latter, so wholly pious. The same dynamic has returned to dog Daniel
Deronda, but the subtle moral shadings, and Gwendolens burgeoning desire to become better

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mitigate the well-nigh Manichean dyad in Adam Bede. Deronda responds, It is truethat the
consciousness of having done wrong is something deeper, more bitter. I suppose we faulty
creatures can never feel so much for the irreproachable as for those who are bruised in the
struggle with their own faults. It is a very ancient story, that of the lost sheepbut it comes up
afresh every day (439). Derondas speech reflects the subtle changes and evolution of George
Eliots commitment to realismthe commitment to unstraight noses and faulty charactersand
bespeaks the identifications that readers make in novels; while a wholly-good character may
provide an aspirational identification for the reader, it is ultimately with the sinners that the
readers find interest (see Satan, Paradise Lost). He underscores our immanence in the passage by
implicating himselfwe faulty creaturesand the reader on the side of the sinners; and the
narrator is projecting a sympathy for Gwendolen in the reader by means of interpellation in
Derondas consciousness. He feels sympathy for Gwendolen, and she, like us, is a lost sheep.
Derondas somewhat evasive answer, however, is characteristic of his circumlocutionary
pedagogical style: he does not answer Gwendolens anxieties or pride head-on, but rather
expresses a sympathy for her implicit self-positioning as a reproachable woman.
Their conference in the crowded society party is an affair of tension. Grandcourt
knowingly permits the two to wander off to a recessed window for privacy, and Deronda,
sensing that Gwendolen is not looking for polite conversation, instead patiently and adroitly
waits for her to broach the subject consuming her, and soon almost alarmed at Gwendolens
precipitancy of confidence towards him, she launches into a dialogue centered, predictably, on
the opening scene of the novel (444-445). What should you do if you were like mefeeling
that you were wrong and miserable, and dreading everything to come?, Gwendolen asks of him,
beginning the lesson, to which Deronda replies, That is not to be amended by doing one thing

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onlybut manyI mean there are many thoughts and habits that may help us to bear inevitable
sorrow. Multitudes have to bear it. (445). Gwendolens anxiety, voiced in the affective register
of feeling wrong and miserable, elliptically sidesteps confessing why it is that she is feeling
so, leaving it to the imagination of Deronda to fill in the blanks, and spurring a conversation that
drifts gradually from the abstract to the particular. Derondas response to her is to stress her
commonality with the multitudes (an unconscious echo of Spinoza)and to stress that
atonement for the overwhelming and singular feeling of being wrong does not come in one
salvific gesture, as Christian dogma might suggest, nor does it mean that she is irreparably
damned. He likewise apparently transmutes activity over the course of his response, from the
active doing one thing only to the seeming-passive may-be-helped-by. But the latter is only
apparently passive: changing ones mind is in itself an action: submitting to instruction. The
coyness and abstraction of many thoughts and habits is, for one familiar with Spinozas
philosophy, markedly material, as thoughts are material, and habits are actions taken without
undue cognition but nevertheless with affective investment. The point is not to become an ethical
automaton but to understand that ethical living is predicated on the performance of acts that
consistently seek to increase the perfection of the doer.
Derondas answer is indirect, however, and Gwendolen, only a budding Spinozist, makes
the leap from what suggests to her inaction, perhaps in keeping with the Christian tradition of
bearing ones cross worries that Deronda is prescribing a passivity all-too-familiar for Victorian
women.15 To this end, she insists, You must tell me then what to think and what to do; else
why did you not let me go on doing as I liked and not minding? If I had gone on gambling I

15

Gone, now, is Dinah Morriss masochistic obsession with bearing [her] cross, a fantasy of passivity and willful
disempowerment in the service of a projected, anthropomorphized God, a fantasy which was a nevertheless
incredibly powerful ideology for Victorian women laboring under the patriarchal ideology of the Victorian eraand
seen throughout its realist novels.

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might have won again, and I might have got not to care for anything else. You would not let me
do that. Why shouldnt I do as I like, and not mind? Other people do. (445). Gwendolen is once
more invoking the evil eye attributed to Deronda, assumed to be rooted in his assumed moral
superiority. But Gwendolen here admits, finally, the subduing power of that glance
unintentional and involuntary as it wasto check her selfish passions. Her egoism and
passionate self-involvement, she considers, is a typical enough mode; other people do as they
like, so why shouldnt she? She is invoking the latent pragmatism of Spinozas Ethics, predicated
as it is on the practical assumption that most men operate at the lowest register of ethical action,
consumed instead by the mistaken pursuit of their imagined self-interest. Here we might recall
the difficulty of parsing Spinoza by invoking George Eliot in her letters: Spinoza is saying what
all the world already knows by rote. Derondas response is to stress the higher duty of selfless
action; one way to transcend the self-reinforcing egoism of imagining everyone else as selfish as
one is is to accept the burden of acting more ethically than others. To do so, even, is a circuitous
appeal to the others ego, as Deronda cannily knows. I dont believe you would ever get not to
mindIf it were true that baseness and cruelty made an escape from pain, what difference would
that make to people who cant be quite base or cruel? Idiots escape some pain; but you cant be
an idiot (445). He is pandering slyly to her self-esteem and figures her as an exception to base
humanity blindly pursuing self-satisfaction; in his construction, she is not an idiot, and not
exempt from the redounding pain of inflicting cruelty. He is acknowledging likewise that
Gwendolen is tacitly admitting, in seeking his instruction, that she is pained by having done
wrong: his speech is a reminder that the conversation could not have occurred at all without the
pain of consciences pangs. She is no idiot because she feels pained by her egoism.

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Some may do wrong to another without remorse, Deronda continues in a tone of


increasing fervor, but suppose one does not feel remorse? I believe you could never lead an
injurious lifeall reckless lives are injurious, pestilentialwithout feeing remorse (445-446).
Working backwards through Derondas statement, one finds a geometric proof: Gwendolen feels
remorse; injurious and reckless lives feel no remorse; therefore Gwendolen is not injurious or
reckless. Reckless lives are pestilential here as Deronda condemns the hyper-selfish actions
of those who carelessly or intentionally disregard the good of others. Pestilential does not
imply evil, howeverreckless living is not in itself morally corruptit is merely mindless and
unconscious, or passionate, in Spinozist terms. And so recklessness is filtered consciously
through the physical, materialized metaphor of pestilence. Pestilence is a great harm to a body,
but it is not in-itself evil; it cannot mean to do harm. Spinozas de-emphasis of the Manichean
moral concepts of good and evil, ever present in his letters to Blyenburgh, reflect an a-theistical
commitment to material immanence. There is no transcendent God over-and-above us to whom
we owe duty; instead, there is God in Natureand the two terms are inextricable. Even though
there is no transcendent deity to whom we owe obeisance, we nevertheless must act benignly to
others insofar as they, like we, are materializations of an immanent god pervasive in nature.
There may be no good or evil, but there is certainly harm and benefit; the discourse of good and
evil indicate nothing positive [present] in things, considered in themselves, nor are they
anything other than modes of thinking, or notions we form because we compare things to one
another (Ethics IV.Preface). As Spinoza explains, by way of dismissing the inherited concept of
evil, by evil [I understand here] every kind of sadness, and especially what frustrates longing
(III.P39S). Evil is detached by Spinoza from a transcendent God and relegated instead to the
lines, planes, and bodies of those of us living (III.Preface). In these terms, Spinoza offers that

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By good I shall understand what we certainly know to be useful to us (IV.D1) and by evil,
however, I shall understand what we certainly know prevents us from being masters of some
good (IV.D2). It is this latter definitionby way of its negation of the definition of goodthat
we see the kernel of Spinozas translated concepts: he transliterates the ideas into concepts that
derive from the materialist immanence he is invested in.16
This speech, distilled from Derondas own moments of painful meditation,17 elicits
from Deronda the first list of actions that one can take in order to act ethically in accordance with
immanence. Philosophy is necessarily rife with abstraction and principles; if philosophy were to
contain merely a list of actions one must take, it would cease to be philosophy. One recalls here
of Marxs eleventh thesis on Feuerbach; and his first thesis is a reinforcement of philosophys
passivity: The main defect of all hitherto-existing materialism that of Feuerbach included
is that the Object, actuality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object, or of
contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice [Praxis], not subjectively.
Materialism, Marx considers, is fine in theorybut that is its failure, too. In framing its approach
to the real world in the terms of abstracted, and not concrete, sensuous experience, hithertoexisting materialism is little better than the idealism that Marx likewise condemns: it reduces the
world and humans to objects or rarified concepts, not in their real, daily garb. Marx lines himself
up with Spinozas rejection of the Cartesian cogito in the third thesis,18 wherein he proclaims that
The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of
16

Deleuze explains it in this mannerThere is no Good or Evil, but there is good and bad.The good is when a
body directly compounds its relation with ours, and, with all or part of its power, increases ours. A food, for
example. For us, the bad is when a body decomposes our bodys relation, although it still combines with our parts,
but in ways that do not correspond to our essence, as when a poison breaks down our blood (22).
17
The role of life experience in the formation of the intellect and ones ethical capacity is also explored in the
following chapter on Felix Holt, the Radical; his education is achieved by a mixture of book and university learning
and the school of hard knocks, in the popular parlance. The combination of these two is what makes Felix Holt an
instinctively ethical creature, and forms the core of his education of Esther Lyons.
18
Spinozas rejection of the Cartesian cogito is too involved to rehearse here, but it forms the backbone of his early
The Principles of Cartesian Philosophy.

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theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the thissidedness of his thinking, in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking
which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.19 Deronda is enacting the
dialectical return to praxis in this passage, as Gwendolen, in her injunction for action (the
haunting infinitive to do proliferates in their discourse) pulls him backward from his
intellectual consideration of ethics to an elucidation of ethical action. He must return from the
affectively-freighted moments of painful meditation to a framing-out of a prescription for
action. Praxis, as noted above, is the marriage of philosophy to action, and a description of praxis
is the enactment of philosophywhich, for Marx, is the activity of historical materialism, but
which in George Eliots novel is not. In George Eliots framework, ethical praxis is not the
performance of historical materialism, but rather the enactment of sympathy. So it is that
Deronda generates a list of actions in response to Gwendolens entreaty: Then tell me what
better I can do. To wit, he responds with a conscious grounding in materialism: Many things.
Look on other lives besides your own. See what their troubles are, and how they are borne. Try
to care about something in this vast world besides the gratification of small selfish desires. Try to
care for what is best in thought and actionsomething that is good apart from the accidents of
your own lot. (446). The list cycles through a dialectic of observation and reflection; the first,
considered in light of George Eliots Feuerbach, is concerned with engaging the activity of the
senseslook[ing] on other lives besides your own.20 Spinoza and Feuerbach are here allied
inasmuch as the activity of looking is turned on ones neighbors, in an effort to establish the
19

Making a distinction between the materiality and immateriality of thought, a project of Spinozas, is besides the
question, Marx remarks, because the court of truth exists in the world as it is, not as it is conceived. Even if we must
cogitate and consider our sensuous engagement with the world, such thinking removes us from the immediacy of
that life, and removes us from the consideration of actuality to the consideration of the alienated thought of that
actuality.
20
This counters the accusations of Bernadette Ward, who impulsively claims that in this particular instance, the
ethical advice that [Deronda] gives is not only banal but exceptionally non-specific even for platitudes (107).

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common space of immanence and species-being. The next step is to translate the act of
observation into direct action, that is, to care about others, and in considering what is best for
those who suffer, to reactivate ones conatusthat instinctual imperative to strive toward ones
perfectionin light of the knowledge gleaned from others lots.
Though Nimrod Aloni admits that rarely in Spinozas work is the topic of education
explicitly breachedhe has not often been read as a theorist or philosopher of educationhis
eudaimonistic ethics nevertheless implies an educational apparatus. By eudaimonistic ethics,
Aloni explains, he means the way in which Spinozas Ethics considers the simplest existential
questions and most basic human concerns: How can I best live my life? How should I actualize
myselfproperly and efficientlyin order to live well, flourish, and be happy? (533).
Likewise, one should consider reading the tone and patience of his letters to cranky, misguided,
and willfully perverse correspondents who had pestered Spinoza over the years as regards details
of his philosophys implications. Aloni reckons that the eudaimonistic ethics of Spinoza implies
that the development and actualization of our inner nature is guided by a telos of vocation that
is immanent in the nature of every human qua human; and secondly, that the perfection achieved
in this developmental process is both subjective and objective (535-536). This telos is linked to
the conatus described in the Ethicsand this striving towards perfection is towards a personal
sovereignty. This personal sovereignty is what permits Deleuze to claim that, per Spinoza, man
is not born free, but becomes free or frees himselfbecoming a free or strong man (qtd in
Aloni, 537). Man naturally strives towards this freedom using the means accessible at handand
this means is always already some method by which the striving subjects knowledge of the
world is increased, and his awareness of immanence is expandedthough the method is not
specified explicitly in the work of Spinoza; George Eliot accordingly fills the blank where such a

238

methodology would be with material familiar from her readings and translations of materialist
philosophy.
Thus, through the framework of praxis, Spinozas materialism looks more like the
something-more-than-philosophy that Marx moves toward in his Theses. In Spinoza, conatus is a
striving for ones own perfection; his ethics consists in aligning ones own good with the greater
good of others. The role of the educator here is stressed as in Spinoza; one cannot become a
more ethical creature without the increase in ones knowledge: in George Eliot, the sensuous
activity of looking at others is an educational process by which the student can come to know
what is best for others, and by the transitive property, what is better for oneself. As Marx notes in
his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting,
feeling, thinking, contemplating, sensing, wanting, acting, lovingin short, all the organs of his
individuality, like the organs which are directly communal in form, are in their objective
approach or in their approach to the object the appropriation of that object. This appropriation of
human reality, their approach to the object, is the confirmation of human reality (Early
Writings, 351). The development and engagement of the senses, which include the practical
senses of (will, love, etc.) come into being only through the existence of their objects,
through humanized nature (ibid., 353) and are thus activities, human relations to the world
that are materially constitutive of mans species-being (ibid., 351). As Marx notes in the
Grundrisse, human beings become individuals only through the process of history. He appears
originally as a species-being, clan-being, herd animal (496). We must provide for ourselves and
for others in order to persist as individuals; the foundation of our individuality is rooted in our
ability to leverage that individuality into an awareness of commonality.

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According to Deronda, one must change oneself; such an action is, for Marx in his third
thesis on Feuerbach, revolutionary, insofar as self-change, a necessity reflective of changed
circumstances, rebounds in order to change circumstances. At the moment when Deronda
prescribes action, the dialogic character of their conversation becomes dialectical. Gwendolen
worries that, in response to Derondas evolving prescription that he implicitly considers her
selfish and ignorant, but embracing the dialectical interpellation that has begotten this dialogue,
Deronda can now safely vouch that [She] will not go on being selfish and ignorant (446). By
virtue of this dialogue, Gwendolens knowledge is necessarily increased; this increased
knowledge imputes to Gwendolen a necessary self-change. She has crossed the dialectical
threshold, and is in the realm of revolutionary self-change. As George Eliot notes in Adam Bede,
The growth of higher feeling within us is like the growth of a faculty, bringing with it a sense of
added strength: we can no more return to a narrower sympathy, than a painter or a musician can
wish to return to his cruder manner, or a philosopher to his less complete formula (Adam Bede
577). Feeling is a kind of knowledge that expands the subjects ability to act, as in Spinoza: The
more knowledge a man has, the better hell dos work; and feelings a sort o knowledge.
(Adam Bede 556)
The next day, after Grandcourt has derided her for her performed submission to Deronda,
the latter returns to reconvene their lesson, and Gwendolen rehearses the lesson of the previous
day: You said that I could do many things. Tell me again. What should you dowhat should
you feel, if you were in my place? (Daniel Deronda 449; emphasis added). Gwendolen has
internalized the lesson of sympathy, but perversely; as I argue in the foregoing chapter, sympathy
is not the Smithian dynamic of imaginatively projecting oneself into the position of others.
Instead, it consists of recognizing the other not as the self, but as an other with an equally

240

important claim to her self. To wit, Derondas response enigmatically contains precisely this
lessonit turns the mirror of equivalent centres of self back onto Gwendolen: I should feel
something of what you feeldeep sorrow (450).21 The subtlety of this is lost on Gwendolen,
and she once more urges him to praxis: But what should you try to do? Order my life so as to
make any possible amends, and keep away from doing any sort of injury againBut I cantI
cant; I must go onI have thrust out othersI have made my gain out of their losstried to
make ittried. And I must go on. I cant alter it. (450). She is moved by her desperation to
make amends, and she conceives that she has taken a step beyond the point of no return. Her
anxiety is framed out in her desire for forward momentum, for countervailing action. Deronda
sympathizes,
That is the bitterest of allto wear a yoke of our own wrongdoing. But if you
submitted to that, as men submit to maiming or a lifelong incurable disease?and
made the unalterable wrong a reason for more effort towards a good that may do
something to counterbalance the evil? One who has committed irremediable
errors may be scourged by that consciousness into a higher course than is
common. There are many examples. Feeling what it is to have spoiled one life
may well make us long to save other lives from being spoiled. (450)
Derondas response is to confirm her forward momentum, and to prescribe counterbalancing
action to atone for past wrongs. But one must consider ones feelings in the matter: he urges
Gwendolen to transform the sorrow she feels at having foiled Lydia Glashers claim to
Grandcourt into sympathy enacted by seeking to better the lives of other people. This is a
repetition of a passage in Adam Bede, wherein the narrator urges, Let us rather be thankful that

21

D. Rae Greiners recent and creative reading of Adam Smiths concept of empathy somewhat redeems it from my
simplistic reading of it, and makes a case for us to consider the impact it may have had on Victorian realism.

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our sorrow lives in us as an indestructible force, only changing its form, as forces do, and passing
from pain into sympathythe one poor word which includes all our best insight and our best
love (532). Deronda himself later repeats this lessonTake the present suffering as a painful
letting in of light, stressing the means by which suffering or sorrow can be translated into
benevolence by the labor of sympathy (452). Pain, suffering, subjugation must all be transformed
into a reservoir for future action, granted present paralysis; that awful affect must be transposed
into an awareness of others similar sufferings. And while Gwendolens continuous rehearsal of
the infinitive to do in her entreaties of Deronda seems to bespeak what Stefanie Markovits
deems George Eliots aversion to action, it is not necessarily the case that sympathy toward
those closest to her leaves her little scope for activity (795).
The mechanism by which this countervailing ethical action is effected is precisely the
internal dynamic of sympathy. I suppose our keen feeling for ourselves might end in giving us a
keen feeling for others, if, when we are suffering acutely, we were to consider that others go
through the same sharp experience. (450). The recognition of others means that we increase our
ability to understand the world as it isand we grow closer to hearing the squirrels heartbeat
and the grass growing, that organic metaphor for an immanent God (or Nature), down to the
reinvocation of the keen feeling. We must sharpen our focus on the world outside of ourselves
given the basis of our natural egoism, in an act of will that rejects our willful egoism; a mutated
transitive property is at work: because we care for ourselves, and because others are selves, we
must care for others in order to increase the tenderness we feel for ourselves. This enables
Gwendolens admission of her own selfishness in light of Derondas invocation of sympathy, but
she once more repeats her refrain, But what can I do?...I must get up in the morning and do
what every one else does. It is all like a dance set beforehand. I seem to see all that can beand I

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am tired and sick of it. And the world is all confusion to me (451). Gwendolen understands now
the importance of sympathy, but cannot see how it is that sympathy is applied. She claims now to
understand the world as it is, but all she can see in others is the reflection of her own selfishness,
to which end she cannot understand how she could begin to act selflessly for others who feel as
selfishly as she does. She has provoked Deronda into an explication of its inner workings, but
finds that she cannot after all understand how such sympathy is to be enacted. She is, like Marx,
concerned ultimately with the translation of philosophy into praxis, however, in the form of
fiction, as in his eighth thesis on Feuerbach; by situating her life in the everyday prison of the
metaphor of the set dance, she is invoking the necessity for action that impinges on the world
as she knows and acts within it. As Marx states, All social life is essentially practical. All
mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the
comprehension of this practice. Gwendolen needs a prescription for action that is practical, that
is rooted in her social life.
Deronda thereafter insists that the mere knowledge of this good life has already worked
to increase her sympathetic faculties: some real knowledge would give you an interest in the
world beyond the small drama of personal desires (451). Knowledge increases ones ability to
act by increasing ones interest in others.22 He continues, It is the curse of your lifeforgive
meof so many lives, that all passion is spent in that narrow round, for want of ideas and
sympathies to make a larger home for it (451). Living without an expanded awareness of the
world beyond the web we knit with ourselves in the center, without a sense of the nesting webs
industriously knitted by all, means confining oneself to selfish self-reflection and sorrow. This
life is a curseas Gwendolen herself already knows, entrapped by her own selfishness. This
22

Silvan Tomkins remarks that interest is the gateway affect for the other positive affects; only by first exhibiting
interest can we become joyful, which he understands in an analogous way to Spinoza, in that it enables us to grow,
mature, and act.

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direct invocation of the curse of her life startl[es] and thrill[s] as by an electric shock (451).
Deronda persists in insisting that coming into this knowledge is a variety of doing, and insists
that what he is describing to Gwendolen is essentially a praxis of sympathy. The refuge you are
needing from personal troubles is the higher, the religious life, which holds an enthusiasm for
something more than our own appetites and vanities. The few may find themselves in it simply
by an elevation of feeling; but for us who have to struggle for our wisdom, the higher life must
be a region in which the affections are clad with knowledge. (451). Here is foreshadowed, of
course, Derondas own sympathetic turn to Judaism, later ratified by the revelation of his own
genetic inheritance. Deronda describes the augmentation of ones knowledge by the
interpolation, and cultivation, of ones positive affectsthe route by which we augment our
ability to affect others likewise positively, in Spinozas estimation. George Eliot translates this
end of the affective spectrum as pleasure, predicting Elwes translation, although the more
modern translation by Edwin Curley renders it as joy, but either way this affect is what enables
us to act more (Ethics III.P11). This is not the easy way out, by any means, Deronda confesses,
and he cites the alternative in the (implicitly) ethical precepts of the religious life, carrying out a
life committed to duty towards others. Deronda has achieved a fever pitch himself, and has
begun speaking with precisely the elevation of feelings that he descries is difficult to attain, in
spite of his lumping himself in with Gwendolen and all others who struggle for their knowledge.
We already know, of course, that Deronda has been gifted with the inborn faculty of lovingness,
of kindness and generosity; it should not be a surprise then, that Deronda is actually among the
few blessed with the intrinsic tendency toward the elevation of feelings. This elevation seeps out
in the course of Derondas speech as a half-indignant remonstrance, though as unintentionally
as his gaze at Gwendolen conveyed judgment (451).

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The half-indignant remonstrance that vibrated in Derondas voice came, as often


happens, from the habit of inward argument with himself rather than severity
towards Gwendolen; but it had a more beneficent effect on her than any
soothings. Nothing is feebler than the indolent rebellion of complaint; and to be
roused into self-judgment is comparative activity. For the moment she felt like a
shaken childshaken out of its wailings into awe. (451)23
As in Marx, the mode of criticism is easy enoughindeed, is the mode in which he operates in
much of his early work, content to lob critique at erring economists and philosophers. But, as the
Theses on Feuerbach perform, and George Eliots meditation above reflects, such criticism, or
the indolent rebellion of complaint is nothing compared to self-judgment, or, as in Marx,
self-change. The latter is comparative activity. Much like the process of entering into the
educative dialogue, it is dialectical. The dialectic is ratified by the narrator, who comments that
in the wake of that awakening of Gwendolen, They both stood silent for a minute, as if some
third presence had arrested them (452). Like the evil eye, this half-indignant remonstrance is
hurled inward by Deronda as an act of self-judgment, but as such reflects outward to Gwendolen,
who is enabled by Derondas act to, in turn, judge herself according to the higher standards to
which Deronda holds himself. This process of educationthe holding of the other to a standard
to which one, himself, aspiresis the cornerstone of Felix Holt, and is the basis, as in Marx, of a
transformative, revolutionary politics. Here, in Daniel Deronda, within the limited scope of
Gwendolens life, its ramifications are less radical, but nonetheless crucial. While Esther Lyon is
capable of making an interpersonal gesture that is both ethical and political, Gwendolens scope

23

This passage in Daniel Deronda recalls the cognate moment in Middlemarch, when Dorothea finds herself in
Rome, shaken to the core by the realization of her essential loneliness and wrong-headed martyrdom.

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of influence is less ambitious. Gwendolen is merely a shaken child, but one which nevertheless
feels the full scorn of the dialectically refracted self-judgment of Deronda.
Gwendolen makes a slide common to present-day theorists of affect when she states
You said that affection was the best thing, and I have hardly anynone about me. I would have
mamma; but that is impossible (452). Gwendolen here glosses affection as love or warmth,
and speaks to the absence of it in her married life to Grandcourt. And while it is true that
affection means this in the passage, it also calls forth the specter of Spinozas affect, which
contains in its meaning both the emotionshence his glossary of affect in the Ethicsbut also
the more neutral sense of the word which denotes action or impingement. In response, Deronda
responds with precisely this invocation of Spinozas affect: You are conscious [now] of more
beyond the round of your own inclinationsyou know more of the way in which your life
presses in on others, and their life on yours. I dont think you could have escaped the painful
process in some form or other (452). The awareness of immanenceof our affective
impingement on othersis inevitable. With Gwendolen, the dawning awareness comes as a
direct result of this scene of instruction. Gwendolen responds by reemphasizing the pain of this
burgeoning knowledge: it is a very cruel formI am frightened at everything. I am frightened
at myself. (452). The painful process of letting inthe light and permitting oneself to be
educated in the praxis of sympathy takes a heavy toll on one whose ego has already been
shattered by the events of her life; the weight of her sin has obliterated the knowledge she has of
herself, distorted it to reflect the pain of her awareness of wrongdoing. The awareness that she
has done these things, and that moreover, the consequences of her actions are daily devolving
upon her, has paralyzed her with fear, an inhibiting affect. Fear, for Spinoza, is an inconstant
sadness, born on the idea of a future or past thing whose outcome we to some extent doubt

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(Ethics III.Def XIII), and sadness is a mans passage from a greater to a lesser perfection
(III.Def III).
To this end, Deronda urges that she likewise transmute the negative affect of fear into a
positive affect, and let it be her safeguard, instead of allowing its strength to overwhelm her.
Instead, she must seek to moderate her affects. Spinoza explains that the passions are irrational
and disagreeablein the sense that they prohibit man from acting rationally and in an
intelligently self-seeking mode (Ethics IV.P31-32). Mans lack of power to moderate and
restrain the affects I call bondage, Spinoza explains in the Preface to the fourth section of the
Ethics. Submission to ones passions means that one is passive, and not active: for Gwendolen to
be overcome by that fear, she sacrifices her ability to act, and instead submits to be acted upon.
But reflection and consideration begets more rational action, and increases the ability of the
person to act, by means of transforming passion into affect, thereby increasing the power of the
subject. By reflecting on her emotions, she can come to understand them, and in time, govern
them to behave along ethically-responsible pathways. Fixed meditation may do a great deal
towards defining our longing or dread. We are not always in a state of strong emotion, and when
we are calm we can use our memories and gradually change the bias of our fear, as we do our
tastes, he says, as if citing Spinoza (452). We must seek to learn to avoid excesses of emotion,
inside of which we are capable of only compromised rationality. Our rationality is the key to the
modulation of our emotions; meditation is the space into which we reframe our experiences of
passion into something more useful and reasonable. [Fear] may make consequences
passionately present to you. Try to take hold of your sensibility, and use it as if it were a faculty,
like vision, Deronda cautions Gwendolen (452). After all, An affect which is a passion ceases
to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it (V.P3). The only way to avoid

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the adverse effect of the inflammation of our affect is to weather it, and harness it to our
cognition in order to engender actions that increase our capability to affect, instead of inhibiting
it. The problem with affects is that they do not always permit our development and evolution: the
negative affects prohibit us from striving to increase our perfection, and decrease our ability to
enable others to augment theirs. Gwendolen seizes on the more generalized concept underlying
Derondas principle of rumination and modulation, but wonders nevertheless about hatred and
angerand is stopped short by the expression on his face at her insistence, which produces in
her an entirely new feeling, a pained compassion writ on his face which affected her with a
compunction unlike any she had felt before, and the lesson stops short (453). He has taught her
all he has come to know about ethics and affect; the dialogue concludes and she must move forth
into the world with the broadened consciousness germinating inside of her.
Gwendolen cannot help one more invocation of his judgmentit will not be a pain to
you that I have dared to speak of my trouble to you? You began it, you know, when you rebuked
me. There was a melancholy smile on her lips when she said that (453). Gwendolen has moved
from the mode of anxiety to one which permits the irony of her citation of his evil eye. She has
been irreparably affected by himand the old, teasing Gwendolen has become not jaded, but
disabused. Whatever the content of that initial gaze which haunts her, she knows now that the
outcome of that gaze was to beget the dialectical, pedagogical relationship into which they have
entered; and their relationship permits only the ironic echo of her former misattribution. She has
interpellated Deronda, and he has been interpellated; after this, they have plunged into a new
phase of their relationship. And, ever after, Gwendolen knows that it shall be better with me
because I have known you. (453) As in Adam Bede, the initiation of the relationship with
Deronda signifies the crossed-threshold beyond which it would be fruitless to try to return to a

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narrower sympathy. Such work will not be easy, however, as Spinoza poetically acknowledges
at the close of his Ethics: But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare (V.P42S).
Though Derondas vocation is ultimately revealed when Mordecais prophesy of his Judaism is
confirmed by the Princess, which enables him to more authentically embrace the kinship of
common heritagea problematic elaborated more fully in the final chapter of this dissertation
Gwendolens vocation is more complicated. She, like all of the women in George Eliots novels,
is frustrated continually by the absence of heroic narratives and higher purposes, though most,
like Dorothea, Romola, Fedalma, Esther, Maggie, and Gwendolen, strain to find some greater
vocation. The preface to Middlemarch, with its famous invocation of Saint Teresa, bemoans the
absence of such greater vocations for women; as F. R. Leavis acknowledges regarding Daniel
Deronda, there is no equivalent of Zionism for Gwendolen (140). But as Stone augments this
claim, Gwendolen will be saved, not so much by works, as by the work of selftransformation rendered more brutally rigorous by the narrator and author (42).
Deronda is not always that rare thing, either, a perpetually blessed being. He is neither a
prig nor a saint and Gwendolens subjection to this imperfect character, regardless of how
flatly perfect critics believe the narrative renders him, is further validation of the Spinozist
structure of their exchange. There is an upper limit to the amount of sympathy one can feel for
others, for the world outside of oneself, in George Eliots fictions. This upper limits concerns
some criticsthe question, if it is untenable to feel sympathy for every person at every
moment, then where can we in good conscience let sympathy stop? animates Emily Coits
reading of George Eliots work (216). After all, there is the line inscribed in George Eliots
famous quote from Middlemarchthe border, which after passing, would only mean death from

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being overtaxed.24 George Eliots sympathy is not idealist but materialistit is bound by and
rooted in our imperfections, and so may feel disappointing qua philosophy, especially as so many
moral philosophies, in their idealism, aim for the stars. Blessedness is not conceivable all of the
time, as Spinoza admits. And Deronda is not stainless: Our guides, we pretend, must be sinless:
as if those were not often the best teachers who only yesterday got corrected for their mistakes
(463). And such perfection as would indicate perpetual blessedness is not plausible, or, really,
desirable, as Coit points out. Hans Meyricks invocation of the myth of Buddha werein he gave
himself to a famished tigress is a perfection example of the limits of sympathy. If we all gave
ourselves to the starving tigress, the world would get full of fat tigers (466). Deronda
admonishes Meyrick for overstating the principle in the Buddhist koan It is an extreme image
of what is happening every daythe transmutation of self (466). The principle of sympathy is
good, to a pointafter that, it is hyperbolic and unreal, moving from the realm of the realistfictional to the mythical.
Deronda dutifully demonstrates his own self-conscious imperfection by rigorously
submitting himself to instruction at the hands of Mordecai. Though it is easy to fold this
particular series of vignettes in with the Jewish part of the novel, he is, regardless of the
biological destiny hinted at and then revealed in the novel, seeking Mordecais tutelage because
he recognizes Mordecai to be more knowledgeableand more ethicalthan himself. So the
circuitry of instruction, once begun by Gwendolen and Deronda, continues apace with Derondas
learning from Mordecai, whilst Gwendolen is otherwise off-stage.

24

Coits reading revolves around a comparison of George Eliots economy of sympathy to John Ruskins
commentary about responsible consumption, and argues, ultimately, that The author of Middlemarch makes
aesthetic pleasure a point at which we may legitimately stop sympathizing, but she stops far short of telling us that
we must do so, and she gives us instead a smart, serious heroine who would not dream of it (245).

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Indeed, Mordecais apparent greatnesshe appears as if he had been that preternatural


guide seen in the universal legend, who suddenly drops his mean disguise and stands a manifest
Power (494)is enough to inspire awe in Deronda. It is this apparent greatness that Deronda
submits to absolutely and humbly: In ten minutes the two men, with as intense a consciousness
as if they had been two undeclared lovers, felt themselves alone in the small gas-lit book-shop
and turned face to face, each baring his head from an instinctive feeling that they wished to see
each other fully (495). Deronda, unlike in his education of Gwendolen, which is marked by the
remarkable and intuitive control of his appearance and demeanor, in turn submits to Mordecai,
stripping himself of the mask, the illusion of control in the face of an obvious superior:
Receptiveness is a rare and massive power, like fortitude; and this state of mind now gave
Derondas face its utmost expression of calm benignant forcean expression which nourished
Mordecais confidence and made an open way before him (496). It is crucial that this encounter
between Deronda and Mordecai happens in the close wake of Chapter 36it is another one of
the novels many repetitions, wherein their conference repeats his tutelage of Gwendolen.
Deronda, not yet conscious that his inborn Judaism is, according to the narrative logic
and Mordecais prophesy, driving his interest in Judaism, nevertheless ambitiously defines his
response to Mordecai as unpredicated on exoticism or prejudiceI listen that I may know,
without prejudgment (498). The upshot of hearing of Mordecais life is that, as in his lesson to
Gwendolen, Deronda finds himself vibrating (like Dorothea in response to Ladislaws electric
touch) to Mordecai: I feel with youI feel strongly with you, as he offers a hand to Mordecai
in the completion of his scholarly pursuits (499). That hand is not enough for Mordecai, as the
bar is set high for the achievement of blessed knowledge; it is not something one can pursue
without absolute subjection and dedication. The reserves Deronda referred to ellipticallythose

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that originate in what is otherwise acknowledged is a pervasive, and woefully naturalized


prejudice against Jewscannot stand in the way of Derondas pursuit of knowledge: he must
submit not only a hand but a soul (499). Mordecai is engaging Deronda to submit to his higher
vocationa sympathy that transcends the personal and reaches toward the collective, the
multitudinous, the national. This duty towards the many supersedes the selfas Deronda has
admonished Gwendolen to do, to transcend self-pity through the alchemical transmutation of
pain into sympathy. This enlarged sympathy is begotten of a radically increased sense of the
worlds unity, the word being a watchword for Mordecais brand of spirituality. As Mordecai
relates to Deronda,
The world grows, and its frame is knit together by the growing soul; dim, dim at
first, then clearer and more clear, the consciousness discerns remote stirrings. As
thoughts move within us darkly, and shake us before they are fully discernedso
eventsso beings: they are knit with us in the growth of the world. You have
risen within me like a thought not fully spelled: my soul is shaken before the
words are all there. The rest will comeit will come. (501)
Like the organic metaphors of Middlemarchthe web, the pier glass, the bodyMordecai is
invoking the knit web of interconnectedness to speak of the materiality of immanence, the
interconnectedness of all things. Mordecai himself can only gesture rather vaguely at what a
burgeoning blessed knowledge of the world looks likeit consists of dimly-perceived shapes
and intuitions, without the benefit of clearly demarcated margins. But this blessedness does not
descend on us in one revelatory, blinding insight, but is rather something that germinates and
grows. The pursuit of this knowledge takes place in the present, but its fruit hovers in the future
tense: it will come. This is what Leona Toker characterizes as the larger movement in Daniel

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Deronda, which stages a dialectics between a commitment to future-oriented social goals and
emotionally alert sympathy for individual human beings that reflects the oscillation between the
individualist tutelage of Gwendolen and the macro-ethical education of Deronda. So, too, does
this enlarged spiritual knowledge of Deronda make of him a Spinoza (by the transitive property
with Mordecai, perhaps, who himself is interpellated by the narrative as a Spinoza [472]). For
Deronda adopts what Aloni calls Spinozas pedadgogical eros: a drive to educate others out of
an overflowing spiritual existence and a strong urge to actualize the vitality, wisdom and beauty
which exists in most people only as a potential (534).
Jesse Rosenthal registers the ambiguity instantiated in the final words of Gwendolen in
the textIt is betterit shall be better because I have known you (810). The juxtaposition of
the two verb tenses, Rosenthal argues, maintains an ambiguity about the tense of the
improvement: The shift in tenses reflects the novels conclusion, which finds it narrative
resolution at once in the present and in the future (777). Indeed, in terms of Derondas plot,
Deronda is poised on the bridge between the presenthis marriage to Mirah, which ratifies and
confirms his Judaic heritage and his inheritance (via a transposed queer marriage to Mordecai
through the filial body of Mirah)and the future, his ambiguous embrace of a proto-Zionist
future nation for the Jews. What is missing in Gwendolens formulation is the past tense, but it is
implicitly present: (It was bad) It is betterit shall be better, encompassing the continuity of
past to future. The missing it was bad is nevertheless given voice to relentlessly in the text, and
we can assume that Deronda, the receiver of the letter, in addition to Gwendolen, its author,
intrinsically understand the antecedent tense. It also calls to mind Gwendolens proclamation in
Chapter 36: But I cantI cant; I must go on (450).25 There is an interesting transformation in

25

This also precedes, and calls to mind, the end of Becketts trilogy; the final words of The Unnameable are: You
must go on, I can't go on, I'll go onwhich, like Gwendolens two formulations of these cognate structures,

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the syntactical position in these two instances: in the first, it is the present tense that is corrected
into the future tense; in Chapter 36, it is negation that is transformed into imperative. Shall be
meets must and must, which would otherwise carry the weight of command and
imperative, is nevertheless the weaker of the two terms. This is because in this last instance of
Gwendolens speech, the ambiguity of the commands fulfillmentthe siren song of persistence
that Gwendolen feels and has to acknowledge, couched in that mustis resolved into the
material promise of fulfillment at the end of the novel: it shall be better.
The question of verb tenses is precisely the question that attends to the intersection of the
two major plots in Daniel Deronda. In the wake of her transformative conversation with
Deronda, Gwendolen has learned to pause and interrogate the situation, her impingement in it,
and the implication of others before she moves to act. While she never quite phrases it this
wayshe nevertheless persistently wonders what Daniel Deronda would do. And Gwendolen?
begins Chapter 44And Gwendolen?She was thinking of Deronda much more than he was
thinking of heroften wondering what were his ideas about thingsMeanwhile, what would
he tell her that she ought to do? (547). This habit, semantically organized around the condensed
image of Deronda, nevertheless represents the learned habit gleaned from her study under
Deronda. As the narrator notes later in the novel, Moreover, she had learned to see all her acts
through the impression they would make on Deronda: whatever relief might come to her, she
could not sever it from the judgment of her that would be created in her mind (673). This pause
is not inactivitynot entire passivity. It is instead the meditation that Deronda himself practices,
the space in which he considers rationally what the effects of his actions will be on others. It is
precisely this pause that Gwendolen once desperately lackedguided as she was, previously, by

rehearses the evolution of defeat into triumph, and in all cases, affirms Spinozas hunch that the conatus, our striving
to persist, triumphs over even the most dire battles in the face of nihilist modernity.

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the egoism that disregarded the adverse effects of her actions on others in favor of an indulgent
consideration of the benefits her actions would have for herself. That she has come to internalize
this pauseframed, as it were, in the conditional verb tenseshe has become an ethical creature
insofar as she consider her immanent, affective impingement. What would Daniel Deronda do?
becomes a call to pauseto meditate and to consider the effects of our actions; the space that the
question engenders is that of ethical consideration grounded in a sympathetic realization of the
like alterity of the other. In so considering that the other is ultimately like usstriving doggedly
to persistwe might be able to find a course of action that permits us both, alike, to achieve that
end.

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CHAPTER FOUR: REFORM: THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE ETHICAL INTO THE POLITICAL IN
FELIX HOLT, THE RADICAL
If I understand a geometrical problem, it is because I have a sensibility to the way in which
lines and figures are related to each other. (Felix Holt, the Radical 122)

Felix Holt, the Radical, is George Eliots most direct intervention into the politics of the
Victorian era (although not her only), but it often comes under fire for paradoxically or ironically
representing conservative politics,1 escaping engagement with the proper politics of her era by
historicizing political conflict or only hazily construing the politics of its era by engaging instead
with complicated legal plots and subplots. 2 Elizabeth Starr sums up the critical consensus: it is
agreed that it is a singularly conflicted and frustrating work replete with nagging difficulties
(54-55). Christopher Hobson remarks that many of the criticisms of Felix Holt or allegations of
its failures come from left political critiques: these complementary, mutually reinforcing
critiques are that Felix Holt is merely a scarecrow for George Eliots fear of mass action, that he
is an aesthetic failure to imagine radical politics, that the domestic, feminine plot is displaced by

Catherine Gallaghers criticism in The Industrial Reformation in English Fiction is the most commonly cited
source of this allegation; in it, she alleges that George Eliots radical politics are far from radical, and are more in
line with an Arnoldian conservatism that seeks to protect and maintain the cultural heritage of the nation against the
democratizing forces of reform and enfranchisement that would dilute British culture vis--vis its politics. Hilda
Hollis, acknowledging the established power of Gallaghers reading, agrees that Felix Holt takes what is essentially
an Arnoldian position, defending the current order so as to preserve culture (160).
2
The letters exchanged between George Eliot and Frederic Harrison are evidence of the overweening attention of
legal detail on George Eliots end. With Harrisons help, and in service to her realism, George Eliot worked out the
complex legality of entail which the plot of Felix Holt belatedly hinges on. The same sort of attention to detail was
lavished on Romola, for which George Eliot devoted herself to endless reading of primary historical source materials
in order to replicate accurately the historical milieu of 16th-century Florence. Both works are consistently judged
by contemporary readers as the weaker novels in her oeuvre, lacking the pastoral realism of Adam Bede, The Mill on
the Flosss charming bildungsroman, the aesthetic wholeness of Middlemarch, or the dialogic counterpoint of
Daniel Deronda.

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the terror of the spectre of mass action, and that it represents the terminus of the industrial novel
(20). These criticisms are, to an extent, valid; certainly, what many critics are implicitly
responding to is the relative aesthetic weakness of the novel. 3 Without a doubt, Felix Holt
suffers from its uneven pacing, its disjointed plot, and its attention to legal detail.
Nevertheless, because Felix Holt consciously and directly engages with politics, it
remains a fascinating starting point for reading George Eliots politics. George Eliot was
famously politically noncommittal in her intellectual life she often skirted talking of politics in
gatherings, and proclaimed her ignorance of political life in Britain. Much of this is contradicted
by her careful representation of politics in Middlemarch and Felix Holt, to say nothing of her
engagement with Zionist politics in Daniel Deronda, to be discussed in the following chapter.
What is perhaps the cause of critics ambivalence toward the politics of Felix Holt is their
failure to consider the role that Spinoza plays in the development of, and representation of,
politics in the novel. As noted throughout this project, there is a real dearth of criticism in
George Eliot studies that acknowledge the depth of Spinozas influence on George Eliots work,
so it should come as no surprise that there is no sustained analysis of this novel along Spinozist
lines. What I would like to argue, however, is that this novel is a shadow text to and tentative
critique of Spinozas Ethics. George Eliot, as noted elsewhere, remarked of Spinozas
philosophy that what is needed is not a translation, but a true estimate of his life and work
(GEL I, 364). Estimate is the fruitfully ambiguous term in this remark it allows for us to read
3

Hilda Hollis generously points out that the conservative plot is apparently dominant in the novel, but that this is a
necessary strategy for a novelist who desired publication with Blackwood (164). Carolyn Betensky, although she
takes George Eliot to task for the conservatism of her politics, nevertheless admits that Of all the possible places to
publish An Address to Working Men, Blackwoods was about as unlikely a literary vehicle for reaching actual
working-class readers as there could be. The Magazine was famously conservative in its politics and middle-class in
its readership (139). Keeping this in mind, Blackwoods pronouncement that As far as I see yet, I suspect I am a
radical of the Felix Holt breed, and so was my father before me, takes on a different hue, and confirms the perhaps
troubling chameloeonesque nature of George Eliots radicalism (GEL IV 246). If Felix Holt were the kind of
radical that appealed to the obvious conservatism of someone like Blackwood, then what kind of radical could he
have been?

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in George Eliot her evaluation of his work through her own, and also permits us as readers to
remark on both commonalities and departures between their work.
But more than merely represent a deployment of Spinozas educational ethics, explored
at greater length in the prior chapter, it is also an indictment of the ambivalence of the concept of
the multitude in Spinozas Ethics and Political Treatise. Like those left-political critics who take
George Eliot to task for not being radical enough, contemporary readers of Spinoza have been
quick to celebrate what appears to be the radical leftist potential of his politics in order to
supersede the ongoing failures of Marxism-in-practice. To that end, modern celebrants of
Spinoza like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Gilles Deleuze, and others, have rather blindly
adopted Spinoza as the new spokesperson for political collectivity in the post-modern world of
late capital. The explicit absence of a teleology and the capacious abstractions of his theoretical
constructs make him a perfect vessel for imagining the promise of collective organization;
Spinoza defines the multitude, after all, as a collective singularity composed of any two or more
like-minded individuals.
But George Eliot, as we shall see in Felix Holt, was skeptical of the value of a multitude
of empowered, politicized subjects. She was also skeptical of the means by which such a
multitude is formed. Much of what seems to be her conservative Arnoldianism, as alleged by
Gallagher and repeated by many another critic, is in fact a substantive critique of the inherent
ambivalence of collectivized politics. Her ambivalence about this ambivalence is telling it
demonstrates, as Evan Horowitz and Christopher Hobson both point out, George Eliots
passionate dedication to human rights like education and self-determination tinged with a
historically understandable fear of the machinations of collective action (as Montag and others
point out). But more than that, this novel demonstrates the means by which interpersonal

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ethicsthe beating heart of her ethic of sympathy espoused in her earlier novels, and expounded
at greater length in Middlemarchcan turn into an ethical obligation to act with and for the
many instead of the singular other.
There are several conceptual routes to ethics available in Spinoza, depending on ones
orientation. What his Ethics rests upon, however, is education, and a progression through
education toward enlightened understanding, or blessed knowledge of God. This blessedness is
not easy to achieve, but represents the apex of human action; when blessedness is achieved,
ones actions are consistent with ones own persistance and with the structure of the immanent
world. These ideas are elaborated at greater length in the introduction and chapter three of the
dissertation.
Thus, the Ethics can be construed as an instructive text,4 intended through its structure to
educate its readers, and inform their actions, to heighten their reason and elevate their behavior.
Like Daniel Deronda, I argue that Felix Holt, too, is a pedagogical novel. The novel, in its
representation of the educations of Felix Holt and Esther Lyons, seeks to educate the reader by
proxy, counting on realisms mimetic properties to ensnare the reader into identifying with these
characters. This affective exchange between reader and text likewise hinges on a capacious
definition of affect deployed in the novel, demarcating affect into the terms passions, feelings,
desires. The role of affect in their education limns the spectrum on which ethics and politics coexist.
Because of Spinozas foundational immanence the concept that all things are coequally
the same substance, God (or Nature)then ones blessedness consists of how accurately one
4

Of course, all philosophical texts are ultimately educative, though rarely are they as patiently didactic as the Ethics.
The Ethics, famously, is not an easy text to read: its endless self-subdivision into axioms and corollaries in its
geometric structure render it alienating to many readers. It is in this very geometric structure, however, that many
philosophers have located the meaning, or thrust, of Spinozas work. Edwin Curley makes this clear in his metatextual reading of the method and structure of the Ethics as ethical in and of themselves.

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knows this about his place in the universe. For Spinoza, living in the world entails a gradually
developing awareness of ones presence in the world and the impingement of all other things,
and as George Eliot demonstrates in Daniel Deronda (and as demonstrated in the previous
chapter), she believes that interpersonal education is the chief way to proceed towards greater
rationality, and thus, toward greater blessednessand thereafter to greater ethical efficacy.
In Spinozas schema, we know ourselves because we know our bodies; the mind can only
know itself insofar as it knows its body. It only has an idea of its body insofar as it understands
that the body is affected, i.e., exists in the world, in space; the physical world is the subject of the
first part of the second section of the Ethics, a rudimentary physics. Ones first knowledge of the
world is the knowledge of the affections of the body, the presence of the body in the world, or
simple perception. The human mind does not perceive any external body as actually existing,
except through the ideas of the affections of its own body, states Spinoza (Ethics II.P26). In
point of fact, he clarifies, if the human mind images the external body, then the mind has an
inadequate knowledge of the world (Ethics II.P26.cor). If this base level of knowledge is simply
perceiving and because knowledge is eminently embodied, it is not unfair to clarify that this
perception is sensory then most of us live within this lowest level of knowledge most of our
waking lives. Perception, after all, only requires the accurate registration of the existing world as
it is; Spinoza explains this level of knowledge as knowledge from random experience, insofar
as it consists of singular things which have been represented to us through the senses in a way
which is mutilated, confused, and without order for the intellect (Ethics II.P40.S2). Like
Emersons big baby, we typically, haphazardly ingest the world through sensory perception. Of
course, if we imagine or hallucinate, then we have inadequate ideas of the world. But any idea
we have of the world is sufficient, even if false; we exist, as it were, inasmuch as we have ideas

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of the world at all: Inadequate and confused ideas follow with the same necessity as adequate or
clear and distinct ideas (Ethics II.P36).
It is clear that this zero-level knowledge of the world is entirely self-centered. Indeed, in
phenomenological schemas of the world, such knowledge is only just sufficient, as in Spinoza, to
ratify the subjects existence. Subjected to scrutiny, however, what this knowledge precludes is
the existence for the rational subject of other subjects in the worldperception reduces the world
to a world of objects that exist externally and solely for the establishment of the subjects
existence in the world.5 This self-interest is not to be construed necessarily, though it may be
congruent with, self-interest or self-centeredness. These latter two are psycho-affective
complexes or orientations more than they are the rudimentary stage of our being-in-the-world.6
Because the root experience of the world, perception, is inadequate for ethical ideation
and behavior, we must strive to increase our knowledge. This root level knowledge is typically
instinctual and pre-verbal; the minute we move into the realm of signs and words, were already
operating at the first real level of knowledge. From signs, for example, from the fact that,
having heard or read certain words, we recollect things, and form certain ideas of them, like
those through which we imagine the things[is] knowledge of the first kind, opinion or
imagination (Ethics II.P40.S2). Knowledge of the first kind involves a sort of literacy, both
visual and verbal. Basic book-learning is knowledge of the first kind; the choice of the words
5

Deleuze remarks on this tendency in Spinoza to minimize the importance of sensory perception: From an
empiricist viewpoint everything is inverted (Expressionism 149). Empiricism insists on the primacy of our
perception of the world as that from which we derive our knowledge of the world. Spinoza, however, argues that the
knowledge of the world is only first, and inadequately, gleaned from sensory perception.
6

Several philosophy critics have remarked on the dangers of conflating Spinozas allegations of innate selfishness
with Hobbesian, red in tooth and claw self-interestedness. Attempts to tie Spinozas lowest level of knowledge to
Hobbesian self-interest would be misguided without taking into consideration that the experience of self-interest is
necessarily more complicated. It involves, for instance, an adequate knowledge of oneself in the world, coupled with
a desire to further ones own interests. Knowing what ones own interests are and serving them, over-and-above
knowing the presence of the body, requires a more complex knowledge of the world.

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opinion or imagination register Spinozas low opinion of this kind of knowledge. Imagination,
Deleuze explicates, fails because it only represents the image without the cause: an image, or an
idea of an affection, is like a conclusion without premises: there are indeed two premises,
material and formal, and the image involves our lack of knowledge of these (Expressionism
148) because the image is, in the strictest sense, [only] an imprint, a trace or physical
impression (149).
The second level of knowledge is that of reason, which proceeds from common
notions and adequate ideas of the properties of things (Ethics II.P40.S2). Deleuze explains that
a common notion is always an idea of a similarity of composition in existing modes
(Expressionism 275). A common notion, then, is a reasonable understanding of the nature of a
thing because of a knowledge of the nature of other things: so, common notions are ideas that
are formally explained by our power of thinking, and common notion[s are] our first adequate
idea[s] and lead us, by extension directly to another adequate idea (Expressionism 279-280).
We have to learn, and to be taught, what to do with ourselves in the most general sense.
We gather images and ideas from the world around us, from media, from novels, from teachers
and friends. We have to know ourselves well enough to know how we fit into the world and our
surroundings. But we will not always get it right. What is self-interested nearly always appears
reasonable; we do, after all, seek to persist. This is the essence of Spinozas conatus: the desire to
persist. Although, we can be mistaken: I may seek to increase my pleasure by injecting heroin
into my veins. The repetition of this behavior, however, will swiftly lead to bodily infirmity,
addiction, psychological traumas, pathological behavior, antisocial and undesirable behaviors,
potential violence, and eventually death. The decision to use heroin, a quantity known by most
for its dangerous properties and effects, is ultimately a decision based on the first level of

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knowledgeopinion or imagination. I may be of the belief that it is the best solution to my


anxiety, or I may imagine that the negative consequence attendant to its usage will not happen to
me. Having made this decision, I am acting in what seems to be my own interest, but is
ultimately not.
It is only when one comes into situational knowledge that difficulty erupts. This is where
Spinozasand George Eliotsinterest lies. This is the domain of the ethicist, the philosopher,
the novelist. Martha Nussbaum reminds us that the novel is the ultimate conveyor of
philosophical specificity; it can teach us how to act in particularized circumstances. Spinoza
explains that while knowledge of the first kind is the only cause of falsity knowledge of the
second and of the third kind is necessarily true (Ethics II P41). So our decisions to not give
money to an indebted friend, or console our ill friend, are not false decisions: they are true
because they represent the culmination of a rational process. But, our decisions may not be
optimal, either.
Hence, we must attempt as often as possible to achieve what Spinoza calls blessedness.
In addition to these two kinds of knowledge, there isanother, third kind, which we shall call
intuitive knowledge. And this kind of knowing proceeds from an adequate idea of the formal
essence of certain attributes of God to the adequate knowledge of the essence of things (Ethics
II P40.S2). By calling on intuitive knowledge, Spinoza is remarking not just on the faculty of
understanding, which belongs to reason, but also to experience. More, too, than just reason and
experience, he is calling upon a notion that many philosophers and theologians have theorized as
the moral compass, the internal guide, or the conscience. None of these ideas easily fits into the
Spinozist frameworkthey are too artificial, too dogmatic, too moralistic; Spinoza, for all of his
reliance on God, was resistant to the strictures and dogmas of theology or moral philosophy.

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Intuitive knowledge consists of not merely knowing how things operate on their own discrete
logics, but rather, how these logics operate together in the constitution of the immanent world.
Blessedness is that to which we naturally aspire through the mechanism of the conatus:
we strive to persist and to perfect our beings. Thus, we naturally gravitate toward the highest
level of knowledge, the knowledge of the real workings of God; and because we are all
immanent in God, such knowledge is the most accurate knowledge of the world as-it-really-is.
Gravitation is a useful figure for this, however, because conatus is a tendency-toward that
doesnt have a particular ending; because perfect, blessed knowledge is a forever-elusive
possibility for the striving human, the best we can hope for is to struggle toward blessedness.
Deleuze helpfully explains that Spinozas theory of conatus has no other function than to
present dynamism for what it is by stripping it of any finalist significance (Expressionism 233).
It is this ateleological nature of the conatus that makes it a promising concept for crossapplication to political theory; it erases the always-troubling, spectral endgoal of much liberal
politics (the rejection and changing of the current socio-political order) or conservative politics
(the indefinite maintenance of the current order). Because the world is immanent and perpetually
present, and because of its myriad and infinite composition, it is always in flux: blessed
knowledge of the world is the domain of God only, or, the domain of the system itself. This
knowledge supersedes reason because it does not conceive of merely ideas of the properties of
things but of the essence of things. The knowledge of the essence of things is what permits us
to see beyond discrete systems of knowledge, of singular concepts or disciplines, of particular
causal or logical chains. Instead, this third level of knowledge permits a brief glimpse of the
over-arching logic of all things, of the immanence of matter. Thus, Knowledge of God is the
minds greatest good;the absolute virtue of the mind, then, is understanding. But the greatest

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thing the mind can understand is God...therefore, the greatest virtue of the mind is to understand,
or know, God (Ethics IV.P28).
Thus, the ethics of the Ethics is one of pedagogy and understanding. Spinoza seeks to
explain to us the proper place of the human in the immanent world. If we are acting ethically,
insofar as ethics entails participation in the betterment of the self with regards to others, we are
striving to increase ours, and others, understanding of the world. Teachers, in seeing to educate
and inform their students, regardless of the subject matter, should always aspire to teach what are
not just true, or adequate, or merely rational ideas of the world; rather, teachers should aspire to
teach their students a knowledge of the world as-it-really-is, to speak to and uncover evidence of
the vast interconnectedness and dense immanence of the world. For the purpose of the world as it
is conceived by the Ethics, we are always teachers and taught; inasmuch as we gather random
impressions of the world through our sensory perceptions, we are always learning, and insofar as
others are usually the objects of our sensory perceptions, our mere being-in-the-world is
educative. However, the ethical imperative lies in what Deleuze characterizes as follows:
The path of salvation is the path of expression itself: to become expressivethat is, to
become active; to express Gods essence, to be oneself an idea through which the essence
of God explicates itself, to have affections that are explained by our own essence and
express Gods essence. (Expressionism 320)
Our perfection consists, at any rate, in our knowledge of God, and such knowledge consists, as
Spinoza points out at the end of the Ethics, in a love of God: after all, God loves himself with an
infinite intellectual love (Ethics V.P35) and The intellectual love of God, which arises from the
third kind of knowledge is eternal (Ethics V.P32) and The minds intellectual love of God is
the very love of God by which God loves himself (Ethics V.P36) by virtue of our immanence in

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and as God. This love, which Spinoza explains throughout Part IV of the Ethics, is the highest
affective expression of joy, and thus the greatest instantiation of the third kind of knowledge, and
is at root what makes this a philosophy of ethics. This is not to say that the book can or should be
reduced to the platitude Love thy neighbor, but most ethics, at heart, insist on that core concept
in one way or another. If Spinozas Ethics reveals the answer to why we should love our
neighborbecause we are made of the same substance, God, and expressive of the same mode
of beingwe still always struggle with the question of how. In this sense, then, the Ethics is a
skeleton key: it fits all locks in its abstract schematization of human action. Literature, on the
other hand, exceeds this skeleton key by drafting specific examples. 7
Martha Nussbaum makes a compelling argument for the role of literature in the
adjudication and education of the ethical intellect. She alleges that the writer of a philosophical
treatise, if the treatise is thoughtfully narrated, expresses, just as much as the novelist, in his or
her formal choices, a sense of what life is and what has value (Loves Knowledge 6). Literature,
after all, speaks about us, about our lives and choices and emotions, about our social existence
and the totality of our connections (171). It is the nature of literature to reflect using imaginative
constructions, words, symbols, or dense matrices of meaning. Realist literature, as discussed in
the introduction, does so via mimesis.
So literature is eminently the space to which we retire to project possibilities, to test
outcomes, to learn from the application of ethics. In Felix Holt, however, the space between the
ostensibly pedagogical purpose of literatureespecially realist literature and the space within
7

Indeed, there is hostility in Spinoza to the concept of the example the universal or archetypal is the only useful
domain of philosophy. Philosophers who spool out endless examples are, he might argue, only providing images of
ethical action, which damn the examples efficacy to the second level of knowledge. George Eliot, it could be
argued, struggles with this explicitly in a novel like Middlemarch, which begins with an invocation of the universal
type of the martyr saint: St. Theresa becomes a universalizing example of the very struggle that Dorothea undertakes
through the course of her education in the novel. By extension, in spite of her fictional specificity, Dorothea is
elevated to the status of archetype, and perhaps by these machinations, George Eliot hopes to avoid the implied
condemnation of Spinoza.

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literatures representation of education collapses. This is what makes Felix Holt such a fruitful
text for understanding the ethical imperatives of education.
How do we learn, at any rate? Through the absorptive nature of our sensory organs: our
eyes scan the page, our ears hear instruction, etc. We learn through affecting and being affected.
But we are not always in a classroom, and we dont always have teachers. Likewise, our teachers
are not always human subjectsthey are just as likely to be inanimate objects, arrangements,
assemblages, circumstances or events. As Spinoza argues so forcefully in the Ethics in regards to
immanence, all things are material and all material is the same substance, existing only in
different modes; and all substance is God. This core concept of immanence, difficult as it may be
to accept as a philosophical concept that speaks to a theology of sorts, is nevertheless
increasingly ratified by our knowledge of the working of the world. The term God aside,
anyone conversant with atomic theory, contemporary physics, know how far weve progressed
since the hypothetical atomism of Epicurus and Democritus. To some extent we now know that
the world is composed of the same material atoms, elements, subatomic particles, quarks,
leptons, and downward. Jane Bennett, parlaying this knowledge of the same-stuff-ness of the
universe, pleads that we expand our consideration of what can affect. The presumptions that have
reigned too long, she argues, are the paradigms of phenomenology, of subjectivity, or of the
indiscriminate division of the world into conscious subjects and inanimate objects. These
paradigms neglect intuitively felt and known truths: that the world and its objects nevertheless
affect us every day.
In her study of pedagogical practice, Megan Watkins argues for a more complicated
understanding of Spinozas affect. She seeks to differentiate a philosophical concept of affect
from the body of affect theory that seeks to equate affect with emotion. Those theorists who

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align affect with emotions, she argues, render it autonomous and ephemeral, or concentrate on
how it arouse[s] individuals or groups in some way but then seems to dissipate quickly leaving
little effect (269). When affect is considered autonomous, then it becomes detached from
material effects and conscious deployment. When affect is emotion, it becomes supremely
subjective and personalized, or universalizable and archetypal. This isnt to say that the relation
between affect and emotion isnt present as a dimension in Spinozas workhe has a glossary of
emotions in the Ethics, after all. But Watkins is making the case for a more dimensional use of
the word. She calls on the difference in Latin between affectus, the force of an affecting body,
and affectio, the impact it leaves on the one affected (269). Affect encompasses both: it absorbs
both cause and effect. Affectio, Watkins argues via Spinoza, may be fleeting but it may also
leave a residue, a lasting impression that produces particular kinds of bodily capacities[;]it is
this capacity of affect to be retained, to accumulate, to form dispositions and thus shape
subjectivities that makes it pertinent to education (269). Because affect is both force and
capacity, it is an importantly relational phenomenon (270).
Felix Holt, however, unlike Daniel Deronda who so desperately wants to become a great
man, is not innately a pedagogue, but becomes one over time. When we first encounter Felix
Holt in the novel, we are first given his mothers concern: he has been too much in the world, has
drifted from the true path, and has erred. The heir to his fathers patent medicine fortune, he had
taken himself off to Glasgow to study medicine. But he has since returned with new ideas,
having dropped out of school. Mrs. Holt takes these concerns to the Reverend Lyon: Felix is
masterful beyond everythingtalks so wild, and contradicts his mother. And what do
you think he says, after giving up his prenticeship, and going off to study at Glasgow,
and getting through all the bit of money his father saved for his bringing-upwhat has

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all his learning come to? He says Id better never open my Bible, for its as bad poison to
me as the pills are to half the people as swallow emHe calls most folks religion
rottenness; and yet another time hell tell me I ought to feel myself a sinner, and do
Gods will and not my own. (56-57)
Mrs. Holt is baffled by her sons behavior; he is acting contrary to her expectations of him, and
against the most reasonable expectations of him. What sticks most, however, is his abandonment
of Christian beliefs and principles. He rejects the Bible as an authoritative source of knowledge.
Those familiar with George Eliots own history and intellectual development see a striking
endorsement of Felixs knowledge and turn in this very fact. What can be read between the lines
is a particularly Spinozist and Straussian version of Christianity in the referenced tergiversation:
most folks religion is rottenness, but there is nevertheless good and bad behavior. What
Strauss and Spinoza most emphatically reject is a foolish belief in the absolute truth and
authority of the content of the Bible, and what Spinoza quarrels with is the entrenchment of
Biblical exegesis behind structurally-imposed dogma. Felix is espousing a line of critique lifted
directly from George Eliots cumulative translation labor, and sympathetic to George Eliots own
position regarding religion as a not-innately-bad thing that has nevertheless been contorted and
adapted to bad ends over time and through practice and faulty interpretation.8
So Felix has come back with nothing if not a properly Germanic sort of knowledge of the
world. What he turns his back on, however, is more than just the religious principles of his youth
and community, but also the formal educational establishment. He has no sustained interest in
universities; instead, as we find out, he seeks his education at large in the world. The Reverend,
at Mrs. Holts behest, calls Felix in for a heart-to-heart, worried that Felix may be undergoing

Andrew Lynn in his criticism of Adam Bede remarks on the titular characters similarly intuitive Spinozist
interpretation of religious dogma in his persuasive conversion of Dinah Morris.

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some travail of mind (60). The Reverends concern is Felixs high-minded refusal to continue
manufacturing and peddling his fathers patent medicines. But Felix bluntly rejoins: My
father was ignorantHe knew neither the complication of the human system, nor the way in
which drugs counteract each other. Ignorance is not so damnable as humbug, but when it
prescribes pills it may happen to do more harmI know that the Cathartic Pills are a drastic
compound which be as bad as poison to half the people who swallow them; that the Elixir is an
absurd farrago of a dozen incompatible things; and that the Cancer Cure might as well be bottled
ditch-water (62-63).9 The patent medicines of his father are useless or poisonousand Felix
cannot ethically continue making them knowing their nature. Felix draws a clear distinction
between the failures attendant to ignorance on the one hand, and humbug on the other. The
former is rooted in a failure to reason or understand, and is a condition of unfortunate ignorance.
The latter is an ethically damnable position it is not ignorance, but feigned ignorance, or willful
harm. His father is, at least in Felixs estimation, to be forgiven for being naturally and
innocently ignorant. But regardless, such ignorance has effects: even if his father did not know
he was selling poisons, he nevertheless sold them. It is unethical in Felixs estimation to continue
doing something that he knew could harm others it is a self-aware knowledge, and a
knowledge that attends to the conatus of others.
There was a moment when Felix could have recklessly and heedlessly pursued his own
fortune vis--vis these patent medicineshe [knew] it a good deal longer than [hed] acted on
it but was, instead, converted by six weeks debauchery (62). This conversion is obviously an
educational experience: or at least an experience that superimposed on prior knowledge (that the

It is worth recalling Lydgates own scholastic crusade to discover the organic systematicity of the human body in
Middlemarch. Like Felix Holt, he sees the damning ignorance around hima fact that condemns his progressive
scientific medical practice in the eyes of the local citizenry. Thomas Hardys The Woodlanders depicts a similar
anxiety about the dangers of modern medicine in practice.

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patent medicines were poisonous) the correct behavioral response (to foreswear any further profit
by them). Felix adroitly and cannily sums up a duration of time, six weeks, in a singular noun:
debauchery. The grammatical density of the claim is dramatic and impactful. Debauchery
becomes the experiential agent by which Felix becomes converted.
Jane Bennett pleads for us to expand our understanding of affect and materialism beyond
the traditional boundaries of philosophical tradition. Given the materialist tradition, we have a
tendency to imagine that matter is passive stuff, as raw, brute, or inert. This habit of parsing the
world into dull matter (it, things) and vibrant life (us, beings) is a partition of the
sensible...[and] encourages us to ignore the vitality of matter and the lively powers of material
formations (vii). Likewise, we imagine that the only matter that can rightly claim agency, is
conscious matter; consciousness and subjectivity have congealed in a hegemonic position in the
Western philosophical tradition. What we need to be able to do, she argues, is to acknowledge
the common truths we utter on a daily basis about the agentic capacities of presumably
inanimate matter. We need to dissipate the onto-theological binaries of life/matter,
human/animal, will/determination, and organic/inorganicto induce in human bodies an
aesthetic-affective openness to material vitality (x). We must be able to expand our
consideration of what has an effect, or to phrase it differently, what affects.10
To this end, Felix has encountered debauchery as an agent. To be sure, this debauchery
has content. He sketches a suggestive picture: a poor devil like me, in a Scotch garret, with my
stockings out at heel and a shilling or two to be dissipated upon, with a smell of raw haggis
mounting from below, and old women breathing gin as they passed me on the stairswanting to

10

This is a potentially fertile intersection of two disparately materialist theories of affect in circulation Jane
Bennetts concept of object-actors in conceptions of affect, and Teresa Brennans notion of material affect in
affective transmission; here, we can see that there are new directions to consider the exchange of affect in a
materialist mode.

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turn my life into easy pleasure. Then I began to see what else it [his life] could be turned into.
Not much, perhaps. (62) Though Felix glosses the sum total of the description as a mere
cautionary talethere but for the grace of God went heit is nevertheless a fascinating moment
in the text.11 Felixs impressionistic account is made of rich sensory details: the smells of raw
haggis and gin, the leers of ageing prostitutes, the whispered come-ons, the ragged socks. He
does not confess any bad behavior, but merely represents the results of actions taken off-stage.12
The whole of the experience has coalesced into an agent capable of changing what Felix already
knows knows rationally, that the medicines are bad for people, knowledge that exists on
Spinozas second level of knowledgeinto knowledge that is ethical, and aware of others. Like
George Eliots own analogy about the metabolization of pain into sympathy in Adam Bede,
experience metabolizes rational knowledge into blessed knowledge of immanence. This is no
accident; we are familiar with the truism of learning by example or learning by experience, but
the grammatical insistence of debauchery as an agent is in keeping with a materialism present in
Spinoza, a materialism attendant to his pedagogical principles.
This moment of conversion leads to a further development in Felixs being-in-the-world:
after this conversion, hell take no employment that is over-compensated (paid out of
proportion), will not live with an eye to material goods (spending money on shirt-pins,
prop[ping] up [his] chin on a high cravat), will not become a ringed and scented [man] of the
11

Judith Wilt, in a marvelous essay, queries What on earth happened in Glasgow in the spring of 1832, to turn
Felix Holt the Doctor into Felix Holt the Radical? (52). Wilt focuses less on the scents of raw haggis and the sexual
suggestiveness of the women than on Felixs self-proclaimed fondness for banging and smashing, but this in turn
begs her question What debauchery? What pigwash? What banging and smashing? Wilt takes the episode as a
moment of intentional ambiguity and seeks the deeper logic undergirding that ambiguity. But, as I hope to have
demonstrated, it is precisely at the surface level of this description that George Eliot intentionally dwellsin the
cumulatively sensual and sensory nature of the description, as productive of the first level of Spinozist knowledge.
12
Linda Bamber argues that George Eliot could never depict the process by which a man of Felixs background
developed into a messianic altruist, as she does not essentially believe in the moralist program of reform, which,
rooted in Christian notions of charity and the imposition of essentially religious moral values, is a poor substitute for
the sort of education one receives at the hands of experience, and is also a dangerous and hegemonic enforcement of
prevailing ideologies (431-432).

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people,13 nor become a demagogue all tongue and stomach (63-65).14 These lives are
reprehensible, consisting as they do of self-interest and superficial concerns. Instead, Felix
resolves that he must take up the life of a common man: to join the multitude. So he becomes an
apprentice watch-maker. By consciously entering into the life of the common man, and living as
he does, he is capable of understanding their plight; much like Orwell in his earliest fictions, he
disposes of his privileges in order to better the lot of the working man. This is a divisive moment
for critics of the novel. Christopher Hobson, on the one hand, celebrates this decision of Felix
Holts as being indicative of the fact that Felix is, first of all, a worker who intends to remain
one (24). Carolyn Betensky, on the other hand, has nothing but scorn for what she labels Felixs
class hybridity. Felix is doing no less that reconfiguring the notion of social class itself,
rendering it as fluid and elusive a category as it can possibly be without sacrificing its
explanatory force as a sign of difference. Class becomes a both/either affair, a matter of
individual choice and/or anterior internal group identity. This means, most obviously, that
working-class characters are at once responsible and not responsible for their own conditions, a
theme developed by Felix himself (134). If this is true and certainly the ramifications of this
allegation are seriousthen George Eliots true politics are not just problematically, but
dangerously, anti-labor. It means that middle-class characters may become heroes by choosing
to do what working-class characters do when they dont choose to move upnot in spite of the
fact that they retain their middle-class cultural capital but because they retain it (135). But the
13

Janice Carlisles close examination of the role that scent plays in the determination of class is a terrific tangent to
explore from this professed disinclination of Felixs.
14
George Eliots fondness for Shakespeare, and especially Coriolanus, carries echoes here; it calls to mind the
exchange in the first act of that play between Menenius and the citizens. The citizens, fed up with the rationing of
grain, have taken the senators to task for the misery of the common plebian; but Meneniuss rhetorically persuasive,
but autocratic response, is to take them to task for demanding more than their share of grain, insisting that they are
but the big toe of the empire, the lowliest and least deserving part of the civic body. Meneniuss sharp tongue
works to convince them that the brain, the Senate, is most deserving of the grain. The parable executed in
Coriolanus is an acute corollary to the action of Felix Holt and its critique of political rhetoric and class division.
But, this is the subject of a much longer and more acute argument.

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gulf that exists between these two readings the one by Hobson which celebrates Felixs choice,
and the other which condemns him in no uncertain terms for being a phonyare proof of the
contentious and ambiguous nature of George Eliots ostensible politics in the novel. They could
very well be troublingly conservative, or, as Evan Horowitz persuasively argues, merely appear
conservative because her radicalism is so extreme, and the stakes are so high and the risks are
so acute (9).
As a man who has eschewed privilege and the superficial, social trappings of wealth,
Felix is instinctively repulsed by Esther Lyon, the Reverends daughter. Esther is a common type
in George Eliots novels, a sort of ongoing double-edged feminist and anti-feminist critique. On
the one hand, these superficial women Hetty Poyser, Rosamond Vincy, Gwendolen Harleth
are portrayed as simpering self-indulgers seeking nothing more than a knight in shining armor.
On the other hand, theyre as often sympathetically portrayed as the logical outcomes of their
education, the flower[s] of Mrs. Lemons school (Middlemarch 123). They cannot help but be
feminine ornaments schooled in the arts of finery and attraction. Esther is, initially, cut from the
same cloth as these other women.
Esther indulges in such unbecoming expenditure on her gloves, shoes, and hosiery to
which all her money went, is inclined toward the most refined classes in spite of their scorn for
Dissenters, and is possessed of native tendencies toward luxury, fastidiousness, and scorn of
mock gentility (76-77). Esther gleans this knowledge of the world, such as it is, by witnessing
the habits of a well-born and wealthy family (76). It is not difficult to see that this sort of
knowledge is at best superficial, at worst useless; George Eliot goes to lengths, however, to
demonstrate how such knowledge of the world is gathered: through observations of others and
their movement through society. In the schema of Spinozist knowledge, it is clear that such

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behavior and knowledge is the sort gathered from random experience. She is discontent with
her humble station, she seemed to herself to be surrounded with ignoble, uninteresting
conditions counter to the excitement and society she so frequently reads about in novels. She
was alive to the finest shades of manner, to the nicest distinctions of tone and accent; she had a
little code of her own about scents and colours, textures and behaviour, by which she secretly
condemned or sanctioned all things and persons. And she was well satisfied with herself for her
fastidious taste, never doubting that hers was the highest standard (77). This code is elaborated
by Esther in her first encounter with Felix: A real fine-lady does not wear clothes that flare in
peoples eyes, or use importunate scents, or make a noise as she moves: she is something refined,
and graceful, and charming, and never obtrusive (71). Esther is smug and self-satisfied, haughty
and aloof. As a result, Felix sees reflected in Esther everything that he has disavowed: assumed
gentility, snobbery, pretense. And so the first time he sees, he instinctively recoils. When Felix
first speaks to her, his speech verged on rudeness, but it was delivered with a brusque openness
that shocks Esther for the first time (68).
When her handiwork basket flies apart, and a volume of Byrons poems spills out, Felix
cannot restrain his disgusthe is a worldly and vain writer, according to Reverend Lyon, and
a misanthropic debauchee according to Felix (69). Byron has not, as Felix has, been redeemed
by his diversion from debauchery, as his heroes are paltry puppetspulled by the strings of lust
and pride (69). Felix observes that Esther is a nice-stepping, long-necked peacock who holds
sway over her brow-beaten father, for, as he declares A fine lady is a squirrel-headed thing,
with small airs and small notions, about as applicable to the business of life as a pair of tweezers
to the clearing of a forest (71). Framed this way, under-educated, superficially-trained women
are easy targets for the sort of education people like Felix and Daniel Deronda specialize in; they

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are structurally identical to the common men at alehouses who want nothing more than a little
education and common sense. Esther, then, like Gwendolen Harleth, is the moldable, porous
learning subject she is a project for reform, in a political-with-a-lowercase-p sense of the
encounter. This individualized reformist impulse is mirrored, as explored later in this chapter, in
the macrosocial scene of political organization, wherein the historical circumstance of the
Reform Bill is the ostensible subject matter of the novel.
Esthers fondness for French novels and superficial accoutrements earns the scorn of
Felix and it is this scorn, the first challenge to her self-protective ego and snobbery, that
grudgingly and slowly sparks Esthers desire. In a sly and sensitive moment of narration, George
Eliot plays with Esthers prideful temperament: I think he is very coarse and rude, said Esther,
with a touch of temper in her voice. But he speaks better English than most of our visitors. What
is his occupation? And after learning he is a watchmaker, she gives the reader a glimpse at her
cards: Dear me, said Esther, I thought he was something higher than that. She was
disappointed. (73) Repeated exposures to the gruff Felixs presence leads to the development of
something more than instinctive rejection on Esthers part, as she begins to find him amusing,
and also rather irritating to her womans love of conquest (119). The relationship between
Esther and Felix assumes the tone of teacher-student, as Felix presumes knowledge and
sophistication; Felix held himself to be immeasurably her superior; and, what was worse, Esther
had a secret consciousness that he was her superior (120). This secret consciousness, or
unconsciousness takes on the form of a compulsion for Esther, clearly grounded in attraction and
desire, for she could not help having her curiosity roused by the unusual combinations both in
his mind and in his outward position (120). Teaching by attraction, Felix is tacitly modeling his

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superior intellect and moral behavior in such a way as unconsciously provokes Esther to become
his student, to accept tutelage at his hands.
But for Esther, Felix has nothing pleasant to say (121), an aspect of the love for
whatsoever things are honest and true that makes him a bosom friend of the Reverends (73).
Felix begins this exchange by seeking to correct Esthers assertion that good taste is paramount
by admonishing her that such a philosophy is shallow stuff, consisting of thoughts about
small [subjects]: dress, behavior, amusements, ornaments (121).15 Such small subjects are not
worthy of attention, and have no bearing on the nature of her fellow man. Indeed, anyone who
pays attention to such concerns is not quite human themselves: I want you to see that the
creature who has the sensibilities you call taste, and not the sensibilities that you call opinions, is
simply a lower, pettier sort of beingan insect that notices the shaking of the table, but never
notices the thunder (122). Felix draws an explicitly Spinozist distinction between both the
ethical register of the levels of knowledge invoked, and the content of the knowledge, in this
invocation of the insect. The superficial human whose interests are grounded in taste knows
only the shaking of the table, that is, knows only the aspect of the world that relates directly to
his own, self-interested experience of the world. Taste precludes knowledge of the larger
logics and structures that ultimately govern the world, and place the self in but small relation to
larger-scale relations. The knowledge he advocates is that which elevates the subject out of the
condition of the animal to that of the human, in that the man of opinions has, at least, an idea of
the thunder that shakes the table, and knows, too, that he is but one node in a web of immanent,

15

Elizabeth Starr remarks that Felix associates Esthers fashion sense with commerce and argues that feminine
affectation beguiles men into working for capital rather than ideals (55), a Marxism-inflected reading that makes of
George Eliot a certain sort of writer that holds the realm of ideas and discourse separate from the trade in
ideologically-inflected, crypto-capitalist knowledges. This is an added dimension to this reading of Felixs education
that could potentially deepen the argument present in this chapter, but which ultimately deserves an elaboration of
its own.

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material relations. Felix is seeking to shake Esther out of her complacency and self-imposed
intellectual limitations, her assumed and self-defensive ignorance.
It is unfortunate, Felix remarks, that women should so often finds themselves condemned
to this sort of a knowledge of the world it is wicked that a woman of Esthers
understanding should instead add one more to the women who hinder mens lives from
having any nobleness in them (122), a theme quite clearly developed in the Rosamond-Lydgate
plot of Middlemarch. But unlike her successor Rosamond, Esther is capable of hearing that she is
a suffering creature. Esther should, in theory, have access to a clearer, more ethical
understanding of the world at the hands of her father, but her natural indolence has kept her from
advancing.
I understand, said Esther, as lightly as she could, to conceal her bitterness. I am a
lower kind of being, and could not so easily sink myself.
Not by entering into your fathers ideas. If a woman really believes herself to be a lower
kind of being, she should place herself in subjection: she should be ruled by the thoughts
of her father or husband. If not, let her show her power of choosing something better.
You must know that your fathers principles are greater and worthier than what guides
your life. You have no reason but idle fancy and selfish inclination for shirking his
teaching and giving your soul up to trifles. (122-123)
With such a reproof, Esther smart[s] helplessly under his lashes, though she has sought out
this very criticism. She, guided by her attraction, has nevertheless masochistically solicited this
encounter. This is reinforced by the use of the word subjection in the above passage; the
woman must acknowledge that, in spite of it not being her fault that her interests and knowledge
are externally determined by patriarchal ideology, she must submit to the light of true,

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intellectual knowledge. Affect is generated by this encounter: an uneasy oscillation between


Felixs imperious pride and Esthers unconsciously self-abasing and nevertheless haughty
demeanor. The scene is tense, and the badinage between the two reveals the stakes: to be likened
to an insect, to be called idle, ignorant, helpless and willful, Esther submits herself to the very
education that Felix espouses in the above passage. She swallows her pride for long enough to
subject herself to critique and reformation. The object of the critique is inherently ethical: it is
to rid Esther of her false notions of the world, and to replace them with truth.
He wants nothing less than to change,
by asking [herself] whether life is not as solemn a thing as your father takes it to bein
which you may be either a blessing or a curse to many. You know you have never done
that. You dont care to be better than a bird trimming its feathers, and pecking about after
what pleases it. You are discontented with the world because you cant get just the small
things that suit your pleasure, not because its a world where myriads of men and women
are ground by wrong and misery, and tainted with pollution. (123)16
Esthers concerns have kept her from being in the world at all and she is touched to the quick
by this, undergoing a series of emotional flashes in response: she feels her heart swelling with
mingled indignation at this liberty, wounded pride at this deprecation, and acute consciousness
that she could not contradict what Felix said (123-124). This suspension of the dialogue in the
narration draws attention to the micro-affective exchange presence between Felix and Esther,
and highlights the compound emotions elicited by Felixs denunciation. Esther is clearly affected
by Felixs characterization of her, but even as these emotions that swarm over her are negative
by most classificationsindignation, wounded pride, failure would all clearly line up on the

16

Throughout Adam Bede, the narrators repetitive description of Hetty Poyser in animal and infantilizing terms is
another rehearsal of this image overlaid on Esther.

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sorrowful end of Spinozas spectrum they nevertheless enable Esther to expand her capacity to
act ethically. These negative affects acts as shame can in Silvan Tomkinss reckoning, as a force
that equip[s] students with the resources to counter, and perhaps more importantly accept,
criticism, which is an important aspect of learning (Watkins 274).
Spinozas conception of affects as emotions entails that those affects which increase the
bodys ability to act and strive toward perfection are joyful and good; those that hinder or
decrease the bodys ability to act are sorrowful, or, reductively, bad. In the definition of the
affects, Spinoza first explains those affects which are related to the binary joy/sorrow, and
follows with those affects which he conceives are linked to desire. Thus, shame is a sadness,
accompanied by the idea of some action which we imagine that others blame (Ethics III
Def.XXXI). Shame is ostensibly a sorrowful affect. George Eliot here demonstrates a more
complex understanding, however, of human psychology than Spinoza at his time had.
Psychologists have always theorized the productivity of emotions like shame and angerboth of
which can generate self-improvement, constructive action, or progress. Felixs shaming of Esther
is an acute psychological reading of her personality; he knows that the best way to breach the
self-protective ego defenses of Esthers snobbery and superficiality is to tackle them head-on;
this is what makes him such a good teacher.17 Thus, shame can be seen as an enabling affectit
provokes the student to want to be reformed by underscoring the subjects inadequacy.
Throughout, Felixs education of Esther is eminently affective. Megan Watkins remarks
that teaching requires, adapting the work of Daniel Stern, the interpersonal traffic of feeling
17

This is also a dangerous tendency for Felix, as Silvan Tomkins and Eve Sedgwick remark. Tomkins admonishes
that the human being is capable through empathy and identification of living through others and thereof being
shamed by what happens to others (Affect Imagery Consciousness II, 223). The danger that Felix runs is an excess
of empathy as a teacher: such an excess could lead the teacher to become ashamed of, for, or with the students
failures. Likewise, Eve Sedgwick theorizes the Kleinian trope of the depressive position as omnipresent in the life of
the teacher the teacher runs the risk of anxiously soliciting the good affective response of his student, the failure of
which would be a confirmation of a shame-based narrative.

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and interaffectivity (277-278). In Stern, this interaffectivity is the hallmark of the relationship
between the caregiver and the child; when the mother of an infant displays a particular affect in
response to a stimulus, the child is most likely to perform the same affect in response to the same
object (Stern 132). Teachers affectively model for their charges: Felixs chiding Esther for her
behavior and concerns, and his scorn for her attachments, because of the desire that Esther nurses
for him begets in her a gradual maturation and change. Because he dislikes the things she once
liked, she learns to dislike them, too. This exists in a sort of interpersonal traffic of feedback.
This traffic is much like the feedback loops that Silvan Tomkins explores in his
Affect/Imagery/Consciousness. A living system such as a human being is a feedback system
rather than a communication system, as Tomkins points out (Shame 36). As such, humans are
not passive receptacles for learning, which is consistent with Spinozas internally bifurcated
affect as affectus and affectio. What the concept of a feedback loop also permits, however, is an
understanding of human consciousness as a system that is constantly in motion: it is perpetually
affecting and being affected. As one can see, the feedback loop model explicates, in part,
Watkinss insistence, vis--vis the distinction between affectus and affectio, that there exists two
simultaneous dimensions of affect. Both the affector and the affected are changed by the
encounter, and when the next encounter occurs between these actors, the dynamics of their
relationship have shifted slightly to accommodate the changed nature of their relationship. The
existence of this relationship over a period of time allows for the gradual accrual of, as Watkins
argues, an affective residue. Because the system is always in flux, even as the two poles of the
encounter may remain stableteacher and studentSterns figure of the interpersonal traffic of
feeling. The fluctuation of the feedback loop is akin to Marxs conception of exchange value
which, though appearing first of all as a quantitative relation, the proportion, in which use-

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values of one kind exchange for use-values of another kind, ultimately becomes a market whose
internal relations are constantly changing with time and place, and exchange-value is revealed to
be completely independent of use-value (Capital I, 126-128). Thus, Felix and Esther constitute
an internalized affective economy that is inextricable from the pedagogical relationship that they
have, indeed, is a central component of it. As important as the intellectual content of their
relationship is the affective exchange that determines the efficacy of the transmission of that
content. And because the affective economy operates on the logic of the feedback loop and is
determined in much the same way as exchange value, surplus is always generated by (sustained)
affective encounters.
This surplus, the residue generated by the continual exchange between the teacher and the
student, is the net gain of the educationin other words, the surplus is the efficacy of the
education, the measure of how much success has been achieved. For an education to be effective,
the affective exchange must continually produce the affect of interest, as Watkins acutely points
out. Interest is, in Silvan Tomkinss formulation, the gateway positive affect: it must be triggered
before any other positive affect can be experienced. Interest, as Tomkins puts it, supports the
necessary and the possible (Shame 76). Interest must be operative for the education to generate
the surplus affect, which is the sum total of the knowledge conveyed and learned. If no interest
exists, then the education fails to launch: without interest, there is no teacher or no student. For
Spinoza, too, this engagement of interest is what signals the affected subjects having been
affected in the teacher-student relationship when the student responds with interest in what the
teacher is teaching, then the education can commence.
It is therefore Felixs blunt, uncouth approach to Esther that triggers an avalanche of rich
affective exchange. He trades first on her nascent attraction to him, and initiates the approach

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because of the ethical imperative he feels to educate as a result of his conversionas a result of
having realized his organic intellectuality. This approach trips the wire of a tumult of feeling in
Esthers mindmortification, anger, the sense of a terrible power over her that Felix seemed to
have as his angry words vibrated through her (124). She is interested in him, and thus willing to
listen to his critique; he broaches his critique of her with unabashed honesty. Their dialogue in
this scene, an electric back-and-forth fraught with emotion, initiates the relationship of teacher
and student. The surplus affect generated by the fluctuating exchange value of this interpersonal
traffic of feeling is that Esther is ultimately affected by this encounter. She can begin to learn
what it is that she can be capable of doinglistening to the accumulated ethical wisdom of her
father and of Felix, attending to matters internal and not superficial or incidental to peopleand
capable of knowing. After Felix departs this scene, she runs up to her bedroom to burst into
tears:
But he wanted her to change. For the first time in her life Esther felt herself seriously
shaken in her self-contentment. She knew there was a mind to which she appeared trivial,
narrow, selfish. Every word Felix had said to her seemed to have burnt itself into her
memory. She felt as if she should for evermore be haunted by self-criticism, and never do
anything to satisfy those fancies on which she had simply piqued herself before without
being dogged by inward questions. (125)
The arrival of someone in her life that can call to question her frivolity and snobbishness has the
effect of conversion; much as Felix was converted by debauchery, Esther is converted by shame.
The effect of this shame is that she is beholden to Felixs image of her, and his desires for her:
she felt unable to read when she was alone, being obliged, in spite of herself, to think of Felix
Holtto imagine what he would like her to be, and what sort of views he took of life so as to

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make it seem valuable in the absence of all elegance, luxury, gaiety, or romance (172). The
paltry concerns of a superficial existence are clearly not in accordance with Felixs designs. It is
in the absence, however, of a specific model that permits Esthers intellectual faculties to work in
guiding her towards ethical action. She only knows for certain what Felix does not want:
elegance, luxury, gaiety, or romance. Unlike the later novel Daniel Deronda, which, I argue,
elaborates a specific praxis of sympathy and ethical action in the pedagogical interchange
between Deronda and Gwendolen, Felix Holt lacks that specificity.
In the absence of these things that had for so long been bread and butter to Esthers
consciousness, she struggles to fill in the gaps. Did he want her to be heroic? That seemed
impossible without some great occasion. Her life was a heap of fragments, and so were her
thoughts: some great energy was needed to bind them together. Esther was beginning to lose her
complacency at her own wit and criticism; to lose the sense of superiority in an awakening need
for reliance on one whose vision was wider, whose nature was purer and stronger than her own
(173). Though she is ostensibly resistant to Felixs rude and predominating manners, the
narrator reveals the truth of the matterthat it is precisely because of that harsh edge that Esther
finds herself compelled to attend to him. She is coming to the realization that she had only
previously been a mess of contradictions and partial knowledge, and that she was lacking a
central, organizing principle. She is coming into the knowledge of the necessity of ethical action,
and is coming to depend on that pure and wide vision. She has, in effect, been converted. And
both Esther and Felixs conversions are grounded in interest: in Felixs case, it is the birth of an
interest in himself; in Esther, it is an interest in other people because of an interest in Felix. It is
this interest in Felix that is sadly missing in regards to her father, initially and so it is that Felix
becomes the vehicle for the first religious experience of her lifethe first self-questioning, the

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first voluntary subjection, the first longing to acquire the strength of greater motives and obey the
more strenuous rule (265).
Esther, shamed, becomes immediately invested in other people: it is the direct result of
Felixs scathing criticism that she soothes her father, kissing his brow in an act of
spontaneous tenderness that does not escape the Reverends attention (126). Whereas he had
been working to convert her for many years, she had resisted his attempts; it had taken the
more forceful, shame-based approach of Felix to trigger an enlightened self-interest that can, in
turn, be oriented outwards to become an interest in others. Her relationship with her fatherso
long characterized by her indifference to his command and his comfortundergoes a
metamorphosis. For too long she had been ignorant of his needs, but now she becomes
intuitively aware of his needs and desires: Esther, suspecting his abstraction, went up to his
study[and] took a towel, which she threw over his shoulders, and then brushed the thick long
fringe of soft auburn hair (195). A seemingly insignificant gesture, the narrator pauses to draw
attention to this tender action This very trifling act, which she had brought her to for the first
time yesterday, meant a great deal in Esthers little historyHaving once done this, under her
new sense of faulty omission, the affectionateness that was in her flowed so pleasantly, as she
how much her father was moved by what he thought a great act of tenderness, that she quite
longed to repeat it (195). Esthers pleasures and desires have been re-routed from the superficial
adornment of the body and from affected gestures and postures to action that denotes an
orientation toward an other. Her father knows that these minor strivings after a perfection are
the work of Felix Holt, which she does not deny (196). Indeed, Felix, as teacher, receives the
entirety of the credit for her burgeoning tenderness: In our spring-time every day has its hidden
growths in the mind, as it has in the earth when the little folded blades are getting ready to pierce

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the ground (197). Her ethical awareness is now planted, ready to spring forth into being: she is
becoming an ethical creature. Though her father is the first beneficiary of Esthers expanded
awareness, others come into the circle of her tender outreach. She makes an effort to get to know
Mrs. Holt, and her adopted charge Job Tudge. All of this because Behind Esthers thoughts, like
an unacknowledged yet constraining presence, there was the sense, that if Felix Holt were to love
her, her life would be exalted into something quite newinto a sort of difficult blessedness, such
as one may imagine in beings who are conscious of painfully growing into the possession of
higher powers (228). Her love for him and the possibility of his love for herare the engine
of her intellectual and ethical development. She is growing into knowledge, into that sort of
difficult blessedness that characterizes the intuitive knowledge of God so lauded by Spinoza.
Spinoza, too, acknowledges the difficulty of this knowledge, and for Esther this development is
painful: it entails unlearning habits and predilections, and replacing them with a stable of
behaviors and choices that were previously out of her grasp.
This development is not lost on her neighbors: she appears before them unusually
charming to-day, from the very fact that she was not vividly conscious of anything but having a
mind near her that asked her to be something better than she actually was (238). Evidence of the
pettiness of those around her subtly dogs her, though. As George Eliot notes in the Lantern Yard
episode of Silas Marner, the majority of those who compose society are but self-interested and
limited creatures acting out of fear or self-defense; likewise, in this novel, the very charm that
Esther now has is cause for the caustic snark of her neighbors: Mrs. Tiliot wonders What can
she see in [Felix]? Quite below her, and expresses her regret as Esthers evolution, for [she]
meant her to give [her] girls lessons when they came from school (239). Operating on the
predominating wavelength of envy, they take Esthers transformation as haughtiness and

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snobbery, perverting her development into a backslide. Like the Lantern Yard folk, they take her
to be now a challenge to their own pettiness, and retrench behind those selfish considerations.
The narrative is clear, however, in its tacit condemnation of Mrs. Tiliot: it is clear that the
narrator intends the reader to understand and value Esthers development over the reactionary
principles of her neighbors.
Esther reaches the apotheosis of her ethical development when her father reveals to her
the low and troubling nature of her birth. Attuned to the unfolding narrative of her mothers life,
she is mentally stirred as she had never been before, proof that she has finally developed
beyond a dependence on the presence and guidance of Felix Holt. Because she is an
independently ethical subject, she becomes attuned to the interaffective exchange occasioned by
her fathers confession.
And in the act of unfolding to her that he was not her real father, but had only striven to
cherish her as a father, had only longed to be loved as a father, the odd, wayworn,
unworldly man became the object of a new sympathy in which Esther felt herself exalted.
Perhaps this knowledge would have been less powerful within her, but for the mental
preparation that had come during the last two months from her acquaintance with Felix
Holt, which had taught her to doubt the infallibility of her own standard, and raised a
presentiment of moral depths that were hidden from her. (252)
Though this new indebtedness toward and love for her father is innately rooted in Felixs
pedagogical commitment to her, it is now, nevertheless, her own achievementthose moral
depths that were hidden from her existed within her as an independent human capacity. She
threw her arms around the old mans neck and sobbed out with a passionate cry, Father, father!
Forgive me is I have not loved you enough. I willI will! (252-253). Esther has come to the

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realization that her primary duty is toward him. Before Felixs education, Esther undoubtedly
would have taken the news of her birth as evidence of her distance from the morality and shabby
priggishness of her father. Now, however, she sees the Reverends devotion to her as
superseding any biological kinship. Her ethical duty now, as she clearly sees it, is to return the
love and devotion he has shown toward her in equal measure; if he had loved her and cared for
her while knowing that she was not his offspring, she has an equal responsibility to love him the
more for not being her biological father.
In the Reverends care for her wayward mother, Esther sees what she is sure is the best
life, where one bears and does everything because of some great and strong feelingso that
this and that in ones circumstances dont signify (253). This great and strong feeling, be it
intuitive or irrational love or attachment, overrides the social logics of familial indebtedness; it
also overrides the voracious self-interest and self-centeredness that had so long foreclosed
Esthers horizon. In this formulation of the best life, George Eliot arrives at the eminently
Spinozist formulation of duty, which has so long haunted biographical accounts of her
oeuvre.18 Jenny Uglow characterizes duty in George Eliot as not a matter of rules or form, but
of feeling. Feeling alone gives rise to principles (209).19 In this way, duty is conceptually
distant from dogma or adherence to an unbending or universalized ethical schema. Feeling
18

In most reflections on George Eliot, much is made of a possibly apocryphal episode with Frederick Myers.
Margaret Crompton provides a typical example: It was at Cambridge, too, on a famous occasion, that she walked
with her host, Frederick Myers, in the Fellows Garden, and she, stirred somewhat beyond her wont, and taking as
her text the three words which have been used so often as the inspiring trumpet-calls of menthe words God,
Immortality, Dutypronounced with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the
second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third. (182) Fond as critics are of taking writers at their own
words, this episode has proved irresistible as an artistic self-declaration. A closer reading of George Eliots work,
however, clearly reveals a more nuanced philosophical programme than this epigrammatic episode suggests, and
critics who elevate this episode with its ostensible celebration of duty universally fail to account for what duty
might entail given George Eliots intellectual commitments (e.g. her translations of Feuerbach and Spinoza).
19
Barbara Hardys criticism in the 1980s, represented best, perhaps, by Forms of Feeling in Victorian Fiction, was
ahead of the curve of affect theory in seeking to theorize the representation of emotions in the realist novel as a
means by which Victorian novelists upset the head/heart bifurcation inherited from the eighteenth century.
Nevertheless, she suffers from a lack of rigor in her theorization, and much of what has followed in affect theory has
established with much greater rigor this line of argumentation.

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from the passage can be seen, clearly, for a synonym for emotion, inasmuch as Esther is so
clearly motivated by the twinned forces of shame and love (though in this episode, love trumps
shame). Feeling, however, also clearly retains its more capacious meaning, its Spinozist sense of
being affect.
Considered in light of this more capacious definition of affect, Esthers transformation is
the blueprint for the micro-transformation of society. Linda Bamber acutely argues that George
Eliots intention as a political novelist is to make dramatic situations out of the great conflicts
within political philosophy: to dramatize the antitheses between public and private morality,
between custom and justice, between immediate fellow-feeling and social theory (419). As seen
in the new tension between the townspeople and Esther, society is ignorant of the ethical
insights that Esther has learned. They, in fact, feel threatened by her and by Felix Holt: the two
represent a principle of blessedness that evokes jealousy and reactionary anger. If anything, the
climax that occurs for Esther is intentionally premature; though some readers may dismiss Felix
Holt for its awkward formwhich segregates the multiple plot points superficially until they
combine through the tediously miraculous intervention of a detailed entail plotan alternative
reading might reveal that Esthers education is precisely anticlimactic. That she can be taught
may have seemed impossible. That she has been taught, however, comes without any of the force
of revelation, even as it comes with a great cathartic release. There is, after all, half of a novel
left. The challenge that now materializes in ghostly form on the horizon of the narrative is that
which is constituted by the other brewing plotlinesthe election, the reappearance of Harold
Transome, Felixs investments in radical politicsa challenge which is, ultimately, a question of
how to move from the domain of individual pedagogy to a pedagogy of and for the multitude.
The order of pedagogy thus increases indefinitely, and the breadth of the commitment to

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pedagogy becomes in itself a challenge. One can effectively teach a single pupil, as we see, but
can one teach an indeterminate multitude?
Teaching Esther has only whetted Felixs appetite; as a singular intervention into the life
of another, it fails to satisfy as completely as the education of the masses. After all, the finest
fellow of all would be the one who could be glad to have lived because the world was chiefly
miserable, and his life had come to help some one who needed it. He would be the man who had
the most powers and the fewest selfish wants (258). The best man would be he whose sense of
selfish satisfaction and happiness is willingly sacrificed to the realization of the capacity of the
largest number of others; in such a way, he would supersede his old measure of happiness and
find fulfillment in this new capacity. Though in the above, he stresses some one, it clear that
the singular pupil is not nearly enough for his ambition, and that such blessedness needs to be
broadcast to the masses: But Im not up to the level of what I see to be the best (258).
Esther, having become a more ethical and sympathetic person, is the ideal interlocutor for
this exchange. Why, she asks, would someone choose to make their life more difficult? Felix
responds from the position of blessed knowledge which, having once glimpsed God, cannot
retreat fully into selfish motives and isolated self-awareness that such a choice was a very
simple one. It was pointed out to me by conditions that I saw as clearly as I see the bars of this
stile. Its a difficult stile, too (258). Explaining to Esther that he had no real choice but to give
up gentility, to sacrifice his fathers ill-gotten gains, to simplify his life, and commit himself to
the elevation and education of his fellow men, Esther wonders whether or not Felix sees this path
as an ethical imperativea sort of Kantian categorical imperative. But suppose every one did as
you do? Felix nevertheless heads off the allegation of a categorical imperative: it is not that his
lifes path is the path that is universally prescribed for others based on the transcendental good of

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the set of choices hes made. On the contrary, Felix espouses what should be understand as a
very Spinozist line of ethics:
I have to determine for myself, and not for other men. I dont blame them, or think I am
better than they; their circumstances are different. I would never choose to withdraw
myself from the labour and common burthen of the world; but I do choose to withdraw
myself from the push and scramble for money and position. Any man is at liberty to call
me a fool, and say that mankind are benefited by the push and the scramble in the longrun. But I care for the people who live now and will not be living when the long-run
comes. As it is, I prefer going shares with the unlucky. (258-259)
Felixs decisions are not for everyone he recognizes this; he also recognizes that each man is
prone to his own unique position within the immanent world. What Spinoza offers in the Ethics
is a generous program of self-advancement that takes on as many forms as there are individuals,
and rests, ultimately, in the right of each individual to determine for himself the course of action
that aids his persistence. Though each man is the same substance, each man does not necessarily
understand this, nor could every man: he recognizes that many men would find him foolish, as
Esther implicitly does, for choosing to make his life more difficult. But the commonality of
mantheir immanence as the same substance, as Godis what justifies and necessitates his
going shares with the unlucky. While the least among us suffers, Felix says, he has an
obligation to go amongst them to improve their circumstances and increase their ability to affect,
and be affected, Spinozas route to augmented agency. Though this may appear cognate to a
Christian notion of charity, explicitly absent in Felixs mode is the presumption of superiority

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he is not better than they.20 Absent, also, is the assignation of blame for their condition,
entrenched in Christian notions of original sin and ongoing earthly transgression: they are not
condemned or condemnable, but rather, in Felixs formulation unlucky, and the concept of
luck here supplants the traditional notions of Fortune or Providence or divinity.
This presumption not to speak for or prescribe for the masses is an ironic invocation of
what he refuses to do by way of his fathers patent medicineshe steadfastly refuses to believe
in a single transcendental panacea for the woes of the masses. What ethical interventions require,
then, is sympathy that verges on, but does not cross into, empathy: an identification of what
individual men need in their particular circumstances. Indeed, when Esther proclaims that she
wishes she felt more as he does, Felix responds with a characteristic rejection: You are
thoroughly mistaken. It is just because Im a very ambitious fellow, with very hungry passions,
wanting a great deal to satisfy me, that I have chosen to give up what people call worldly good
(259). Felix perversely attributes his ethical behavior to an excess of passions, and claims that his
selflessness is actually a variety of self-interest. His further explanation demonstrates a clearheaded self-appraisal: he admits that if he had gone into the life of other men, he would have
wanted to win, to defend the wrong that I had once identified myself with. It is this picture of a
life that he can identify as a picture of what I should hate to be (259); the worst he could do
would be to sacrifice all for the sake of two parlours, a rank eligible for churchwardenship, a
discontented wife and several unhopeful children; hell never be one of the sleek dogs (260).
Modestly, he claims that he merely knows what he shouldnt like to be, instead of arguing that he
has a clear picture of what he should be: but in this way, he sidesteps Esthers drift into a
universalized ethical imperative. By disavowing a clear plan of action or mode of behavior, he
20

In this way, Amanda Claybaughs reading of George Eliots participation in a longer meta-narrative of charitable
fictions rings false; although George Eliot is, without a doubt, a woman with social reformation on her mind, she
objects, as the biographies remark, to the traditional Victorian means to achieving reformation.

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continues to make the argument that the best life for any human is that which accords with
them and their individual circumstances: they are all positioned differently in what Deleuze calls
the plane of immanence; they all occupy different nodes and thus must act differently in order
to be ethical subjects. The only universal to be construed is the imperative of Spinozas Ethics
that each individual become as knowledgeable of God as he can.
Indeed, his hungry passions lead him to larger and larger quarry: he understands the
necessity of making the leap from the singular to the multiple, from the individual to the
multitude. The other thing thats got into my mind like a splinteris the life of the miserable
the spawning life of vice and hunger (260). Indeed, the revelation of the lives of the miserable,
forced into that condition, as it were, because of the hegemonic mores of the sleek dogs, the
clerkly classes that demand gentility at the cost of the bodies of the laboring poor, becomes a
motivating force for Felix. He has no fellow-feeling with the rich as a class; the habits of their
lives are odious to me (263). Instead, because Necessity is laid upon me, as Felix cites,
quoting Corinthians (260), he is a man who [is] warned by visions (262) to try to make life
less bitter for the few within [his] reach (263). It is in this transition from Esther to the
unfortunate masses that we see the transformation of ethics into politicsthe transformation of
interpersonal education into collective action.
Felix sees radical politics as a natural extension of his education, and the ethical
imperative of pedagogy. In order to understand the common man, he must abandon pretense and
clerkly gentility (64) in order to live among and as them. By doing so, he consciously steps
into the role of Gramscian organic intellectual. Epigrammatically, Gramsci remarks in a Felix
Holt vein that all men are intellectualsbut all men do not have the function of intellectuals in
society (121). According to Gramsci, men are either generated by and participate in the

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ideological apparatuses (to borrow Althussers formulation) of church, school, or state, or they
arise, as if spontaneously, from the productive class itself. If the man be the former, then the
intellectual is more likely to reproduce the ideology of the apparatus that produced him. Felix
consciously abandons the university system, insisting instead on an apprenticeship in physical
labor. In doing so, Felix instead opts, as it were, to become an intellectual of his class, immersed
in the knowledge common to the tradespeople and townfolk. Hobson comes closest to agreeing
with this argument in his assertion that Felix Holt is a labor pioneer, a person who dedicates
his or her whole life to long-term activity in the working class (19). The terms of Hobsons
argument are differentlabor pioneer instead of organic intellectualperhaps because critics
like Carolyn Betensky so stridently argue against the working-class nature of Felix Holt. It is
perhaps Felixs seemingly-exceptional position as an heir to a fortune that troubles his workingclass identity. Betensky draws attention to the absence of critical interest in Felixs middle-class
aspects [which] reflects the tendency of critical treatments of social-problem narratives to see the
ways the novels construct the marked other as political while not registering as political the
ways they configure the unmarked bourgeois self position (136). At best for her, Felix
occupies a hybrid position; she is unwilling to grant that his passionate commitment to the
working classes is genuine, preferring instead to maintain that he is an exception that proves
George Eliots inherent conservatism, a charge that lays at George Eliots feet a responsibility
for the dissemination of a bourgeois ideology that presumes that the only subject of politics is
ultimately a bourgeois subject. This intensifies Gallaghers assertion that the novel is singlehandedly responsible for the demise of the otherwise-politically-promising genre of the industrial
novel, an argument that Raymond Williams likewise makes, but in gentler form.

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To be sure, Felix is more educated and articulate than the working classes are portrayed
in the novel and more, of course, than the average Victorian reader (that spectral
construction) would imagine them to be. But this does not preclude him from being of assistance
to the working classes, even if it renders him unfaithful to the truth of presumed mimesis. But
it is true, as Hobson points out, that Felix Holt is not the first worker-intellectual in the
industrial novel tradition, citing Kingsleys Alton Locke and others (24). Over and above his
labor, Felix is a philosopher, an artist, a man of taste, he shares a conception of the world, he
has a conscious line of moral conduct, and so contributes towards maintaining or changing a
conception of the world, that is, towards encouraging new modes of thought (Gramsci 121).
The role of the organic intellectual is ethical-political: he is entrusted with the activity of
representing to the other members of his class the material and real conditions of their lives and
activities in order to effect improvements and changes to their inherited conditions. Thus, when
Mr. Lyon asks Felix whether or not, after his conversion, he has an interest in politics, Felix
responds passionately: I should think so. I despise every man who has notor, having it,
doesnt try to rouse it in other men (65). For Felix, an interest in politics is compulsory for the
thinking man, and the dissemination of political beliefs likewise compulsory for any man who
has them.
This is Felixs vocation, much as Dorotheas vocation is to become a conduit of
sympathy in Middlemarch. To this end, Felix acknowledges his role as a teacher: he must
disseminate the political principles he has come to know through his experience. Bartle Massey
in Adam Bede likewise feels something of this compulsion to educatethough Masseys job is
not explicitly political: he merely responds to the obvious need to educate those men whom the
feudalist, pastoral system has neglected to inform. Felix Holt eschews the classroom; it is not

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literacy that the men need most urgently, according to Felixs estimation, but an understanding of
their subjugated position in the world, and the overweening privilege of the upper- and middleclasses. Though Felix is very far from perfect communist, or even socialist, political thinking, he
nevertheless espouses progressive political ideals. He does so in the ale-house, wherein he
order[s] a pint of beer, and get[s] into talk with the fellows over their pots and pipes. Somebody
must take a little knowledge and common sense to them in this way, else how are they to get it? I
go for educating the non-electors, so I put myself in the way of my pupilsmy academy is the
beer-house (73). Those in need of education do not know they need itand are certainly not
seeking it out, so Felix stages educational interventions in the leisured domain of the nonelectors. This is stealth pedagogy: taking education to those who need it without seeming to
teach. After all, according to Gramsci, The mode of existence of the new intellectual can no
longer consist of eloquence, the external and momentary around of sentiments and passions, but
must consist of being actively involved in practical life, as a builder, an organizer, permanently
persuasive because he is not purely an orator (122). The organic intellectual must operate as an
agent within the community itself, as Felix does, stationed at an alehouse. The work of the
organic intellectual is not ephemeral or historical, but an ongoing vocation perpetually and
immanently generated in spite of capitalism.
This education, inasmuch as it is effectively the representation of the working mans
condition to himself through the vehicle of the organic intellectual, is an education that works
against bourgeois ideology. Bourgeois ideology seeks to uphold the status quo that permits the
hegemony of the class it serves. Althusser explains that Marxs conception of ideology is not just
the sum of individual ideas, but rather a supra-individual mental reality that imposes itself
on individuals (Encounter 136). Althusser puts it famously himself that ideology is a

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representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence


(Lenin 109). Ideology is what interpellates subjects into their positions in the world in order to
continue reproducing the hegemonic bourgeois order that enables capitalisms expansion. Insofar
as these subjects are begotten by ideology, ideology has a material existence. While Althusser
cannot see that there is a way to break out of the strictures of ideologyit has its hooks in its
subjects from before birth (by way of the logic of reproduction) to deathGramsci nevertheless
imagines that there is space for the spontaneous generation of individuals outside of what
Althusser would call ideological state apparatuses (the church, the schools, the state).
In the unfinished Political Treatise, Spinoza explains that the exploration of political
science is but a natural outgrowth of the study of ethics; Philosophers conceive of the passions
which harass us as vices into which men fall by their own fault, and, therefore, generally deride,
bewail, or blame them, turning them into objects of satire (287). It is the case, Spinoza argues,
however, that political science needs to take into account the state of mans passions as the
proper object of its study. These passions are properly speaking properties just as pertinent to
the human subject as heat, cold, storm, thunder (289). Because men are of necessity liable to
passions, men must be governed to moderate their passions reasonably in order to live under
dominion. Doing so, men are open to the buffeting forces of persuasion and reason, but it can be
hoped that man ultimately comes to participate in the multitude in the way that best suits his
person and others (289-290). Government is but an outgrowth of these ethics. Conceptually, as
men strive toward greater and greater perfectionblessed, intuitive knowledge of Godthey act
increasingly in accord with their own self-perfection and the perfection of others. This increasing
harmony tends towards the establishment and maintenance of reciprocal good will and ethical
action; this utopian thrust, however, is certainly not the teleological imperative of the Ethics. The

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engine of the conatus, and of our own self-interest is such that in spite of the difficulty, we must,
and will, continue to stumble towards that elusive harmony and perfection.
If the concept of that ethical utopia is elusive, it is nevertheless implicitly embedded in
the philosophy of immanence and ethics. Government, too, is always-already constituted out of
the wishes of the multitude. As in the Ethics, the constitution of political power is measured by
the composition of the multitude. 21 In the Political Treatise, Spinoza explains that If two come
together and unite their strength, they have jointly more power, and consequently more right over
nature than both of them separately, and the more there are that have so joined in alliance, the
more right they all collectively will possess (PT II.13). This concept of natural rightthat it is
ultimately constituted by the coming-together of individuals into multitudesis a wonderfully
simple formulation that many political theorists have since seized upon.
Education is, however, still a strong component of the composition of government.
Reason, Spinoza remarks, must be the tool with which just government rules, not persuasion.
Persuasion, Spinoza remarks, is a powerful force whose end results, however, is beholden to the
wishes of the persuader, and not the persuaded. Persuasion is effectively debunked over the
Theologico-Politcal Treatises critique of Biblical exegesis and Judeo-Christian dogma.
Persuasion appeals to the passions, which are degraded, passive affects. Affects are those forces
which are understood and are thus, on some level, reasonable. Thus, reasonable government
would appeal to the affects, which, because active, are hot-wired to the knowledge of ones own
interests and can be effectively moderated. Bad government appeals only to the passionsthose

21

Power is, in itself, a complicated question in Spinoza. Antonio Negri explores the question at great length in his
Savage Anomaly, breaking the concept of power into potestas and potentia in order to capture both the manifest and
the potential force of affect/power in Spinoza. Montag (in a great number of his essays), Macherey (in his reading of
natural right in Hegel and Spinoza), and Balibar (in Anti-Orwell) all interrogate the concept of power in
Spinoza. The discussion is certainly interesting, but the minutiae is less important to the conclusions of this chapter,
which focuses more simply on the concept of affect from the Ethics.

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ultimately uncontrollable and fickle passive-affective states of its subjects. Thus, as Etienne
Balibar glosses in Spinoza and Politics, too often Individuals rarely decide, in the strong sense
of the term. What they mistake for their will is most often only ignorance of the passions which
lead them to prefer certain actions to othersYet, if a unified will is to emerge at the level of the
State, the multitude must be involved in its production (71). If a state qua state exists, it is
because of the complicity and the coherence of the multitude. Balibar puts great stress on the
coherence of the multitudethe multitude as a body of individuals that is constituted through
communication and rationality. Balibar believes this is the two-fold foundation of Spinozas
Political Treatisefirst, the idea that assemblies of collective governments can elaborate
rational choices through discussion, and second, the idea that if every opinion is given some
say in the process of arriving at a decision, then the result has the best possible chance of
corresponding to the general interest and thus of being acceptable to all (74).22 Because he must
eschew some sort of mystical formation of multitude Deleuze too often, for instance, drifts into
abstracted notions of the coming-together of singularities into multitudesBalibar concludes
that the operative mechanism by which it is formed is communication. This certainly accords
with the composition of the Ethics and the TPs outgrowth from that text, as evidenced by
Spinozas introduction to the latter.

22

It is worth noting that Balibar, like many political theorists reading the Political Treatise, derive their analysis of
the text from the ostensible endpoint provided by that workthe arrival of democracy against monarchy and
oligarchy. Hardt and Negri, in their Commonwealth, take for granted the same dynamic, that democracy is somehow
the teleological realization of Spinozas exploration of forms of government. As Peter Hitchcock pointed out in his
paper at the 2010 ACLA conference in New Orleans, Commonism, these theorists too-willingly arrest Spinozas
ideological development at democracy because of what is otherwise a historical contingency Spinozas death
before the TPs completion. As Hitchcock wryly pointed out, the next planned step in the TP was the discussion of
the exclusion of women from the operation of government. While we cannot know exactly what was to ensue from
Spinozas discussion of democracy, founding an analysis of his political thought in the seeming-inevitability of the
realization of democracy is a troubling prospect. On the other hand, though, it is the case that the only way we can
read the TP is that it concludes with democracy: we have no further text, regardless of what we may construe his
intentions to have been. As such, it has a history in discourse as being (mis?)read as a completed text. So to speak
of the effects of those readings is nevertheless historically relevant.

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But as Balibar points out, any politics is informed by the dialectic between Reason and
the passions.23
1. Like all natural individuals, men have a direct interest in agreeing amongst
themselves, insofar as they desire their own preservation.
2. Experience and reason show that this is a necessary truth about society, and the facts
confirm it.
3. Reason, in this sense, is part of human nature: it does not have to be imported into it
from outside.
4. As such, reason cannot claim to define human nature, either exclusively or
completely. It does not define it exclusively because human nature is in turn related to
a much more general nature, which is infinitely greater. And it does not define it
completely because human Desire also essentially contains other modes that are
opposed to those of reason. These other modes are the passionate affects, on account
of which men are guided not by Reason but by their impulses. (84)
Because men exist in the tension between the higher-level orders of knowledge informed by
Reason and in the lower orders of knowledgeand because men exist both in the arena of
knowledge and in the arena of no-knowledge, or base impulseboth passions and Reason have
to be accounted for in a theory of politics. George Eliot accounts for this in Felix Holt by
exploring the tension between the educative impulse of Felix Holt, his desire to guide, shape and
inform the opinions of the masses, and the spontaneous eruption of the masses, as shall be
explored below. Balibar notes that Passion and reason are both, in the final analysis, modes of

23

Bamber recognizes the dialectical tension in the depiction of politics in Felix Holt, but concludes that
whenEliot wishes to justify her hero on the basis of his politics, her commitment to personal morality and to the
individual as the measure of worth forces her to defend a conservative political position with which she is extremely
uneasy; in such circumstances the confidence she needs to present politics dialectically deserts her (425).

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communication between bodies (95). Passion is often appealed to vis--vis the communicative
mechanisms of rhetoricthe art of shaping words and communication in such ways as to ignite
the emotive response of its hearers. Reason is appealed to likewise through communication, but
communication which doesnt resort to sophistry or manipulation, but rather appeals to the
knowledge that the subject has of his/her own best interests.
Thus, rhetoric and reason operate in tandem and in tension. But at heart, it is the
imperative that governed subjects seek to increase their knowledge, to read beyond the effect of
rhetoric to their own investments, engagements, and interests that prevails. So Balibar, like Felix
Holt, believes that knowledge is a praxis, and that the struggle for knowledge (that is,
philosophy) is a political praxis (98). For Balibar, the ultimate structural mechanism that will
achieve this praxis is the democratization of knowledge (124). Certainly this impulse toward
the democratization of knowledge is what is clearly at the core of Felixs pedagogical vocation.
As an organic intellectual, he has the duty to impart the intuitive knowledge hes construed from
experience and immersion to others, and these others must be as numerous as possible. He
cannot rest on the laurels of having reformed Esther: he itches to teach more.
Radicalism is, then, historically, the right party match for Felixs educational ambitions.
What radicalism permitted, at the time of the Reform Bill, was the enfranchisement of a great
number of men previously underrepresented. What radicalism means for Felix Holt is not the
wholesale transformation of working men into ringed and scented middle class men; instead, it
means their enfranchisement and their education. The problem with presuming that the middle
class is superior to the working man, he argues, is the belief that the middle class are better
educated than the working men; this is not the casethe most of the middle class are as
ignorant as the working people about everything that doesnt belong to their own Brummagem

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life, after all (64). Working men, Felix argues, dont need the superficial elevation to the
trappings of middle class, nor do they need their empty book learning, either. What they need, he
argues, is to be given any truthwhether its in the Testament or out of it (65); access to the
truth, the truth of their position in society and their willing subservience, will help them climb
out of that passively-accepted inferiority. Ironic as it is that Harold Transome, ostensibly the son
of aristocracy, should return from abroad only to espouse radical politics and become the vehicle
of its representation in Treby, he nevertheless identifies in radicalism some of its central tenets:
He meant to stand up for every change that the economical condition of the country required,
and he had an angry contempt for men with coronets on their coaches, but too small a share of
brains to see when they had better make a virtue of necessity. His respect was rather for men
who had no coronets, but who achieved a just influence by furthering all measures which the
common sense of the country, and the increasing self-assertion of the majority, peremptorily
demanded (110). Like Felix Holt, who seeks to imbue in the men in the public houses common
sense, or an intuitive knowledge of the world they inhabit, Harold Transome theoretically
supports the propagation of such common sense over the hollow idol-worship of persisting
aristocratic government. For Felix Holt, Radicalism consists of life-long work against privilege,
monopoly, and oppression (182). But in opposition to the traditional operation of politics, which
empties such concepts of their content, he desires above all to preserve their meaning against the
scoundrels who turn the best hopes of men into by-words for cant and dishonesty (182).24 At
any rate, Radicalism is, as Christian recognizes in the novel, all but inevitablea fact borne out,
of course, by the progressive history of enfranchisement that George Eliot, with the benefit of

24

Ultimately, Arnold Kettles argument that the failure of the novel resides in the false opposition of Holts
radicalism to Transomes radicalism fails to suffice as a critique. Both get radicalism wrong in the historical sense
of that political term. But what George Eliot is doing in these figures, especially as Esther Lyons is the pivot point
between them, is rehearsing the failure of a universalizing politics grounded in rhetorical manipulation.

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hindsight, was able to see. Reform has set in by the will of the majoritythats the rabble, you
knowSo the stream must be running towards Reform and Radicalism (102). As Spinoza
points out in the Political Treatise, the political organization of any society is the constituted will
of its majority; the multitude that determines its governance does so on a majoritarian principle.
So, as history has borne out, and the novel points out, Radicalism insofar as it expresses the will
of a more capacious majority than hitherto admitted, is the inevitable direction of politics in
England.
As Felix Holt realizes, though, if the working man is to vote and so to choose someone to
represent him in Parliament, he must be educated beyond simple appeals to his irrational
passions. The working man must be less susceptible to the cant and empty signification of
rhetoric. In the game of politicswhere the minds and passions of men are manipulated into
arrays and formations according to the string-pulls of political machinerythese common men
are a quarry that no politician can resist.
Fancy what a game at chess would be if all the chessmen had passions and intellects,
more or less small and cunning: if you were not only uncertain about your adversarys
men, but a little uncertain also about your own; if your knight could shuffle himself on to
a new square by the sly; if your bishop, in disgust at your castling, could wheedle your
pawns out of their places; and if your pawns, hating you because they are pawns, could
make away from their appointed posts that you might get a checkmate on a sudden. You
might be the longest-headed of deductive reasoners, and yet you might be beaten by your
own pawns. You would be especially likely to be beaten, if you depended arrogantly on
your mathematical imagination, and regarded your passionate pieces with contempt.
(278)

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Moving individualities into multitudesand trusting those multitudes once massedis a


complicated game. George Eliot acutely reminds us of the near-infinite contingencies at work
when the multitude is in play: the knight, the bishop, the pawns are all individual forces with
discrete agendas; they cannot be trusted entirely to the movement of an unseen hand. There is no
failsafe means by which to arrange and deploy all of your individual actors in a political drama.
The passions, especiallysignalled by the conceits diction (on the sly, in disgust, hating
you)are the forces which interfere with the longest-headed deductive reasoners most
careful manipulation. There is a perpetual, almost-comic tension between the emotive will of the
actor and his intellect, and the volatile space of this oscillation makes it impossible to effectively
predict or determine, en toto, the movements of individuals.
George Eliots familiar unpacking of the chessboard image brings home the point of this
difficulty: Yet this imaginary chess is easy compared with the game a man has to play against
his fellow-men with other fellow-men for his instruments. He thinks himself sagacious, perhaps,
because he trusts no bond except that of self-interest; but the only self-interest he can safely rely
on is what seems to be such to the mind he would use or govern. Can he ever be sure of knowing
this? (278). Here, George Eliot strikes at the heart of Spinozas ethics. The player of the game
cannot be sure first of all what is in his best interestand, paradoxically, if wise, will only trust
his own self-interest. By trusting first his self-interest, he gains a stable vantage point by which
to observe others motives and weaknesses, motivated by their own self-interest. But even as he
knows his own self-interest, he cannot know for sure that others can be motivated in the ways he
is motivated: he can only know, for certain, himself. He may be able to act decisively on his
beliefs about others self-interest, but will never know for certain until results are produced that

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his actions were in keeping with his, and the others, self-interest. Humans are slippery and
complex systems wherein the balancing elements are not wholly knowable. 25
Felix himself is prey to the uneasy waffling between intellect and passion as he knows
only too well. His intellectual, political engagements are always mitigated by the quick eruptions
of his passions.26 When he attempts to engage Mr. Johnson at the public house in Sproxton, to
counter the dishonest sophistry of his stumping foe Harold Transome, Felix felt himself in
danger of getting into a rage (136). The reduction of ideological tenets to phraseology is
Johnsons game. Johnson describes reform as a crisis, which he did not suppose that one of
his audience knew what a crisis meant; but he had large experience in the effect of
uncomprehended words (136). Felix deplores these techniqueswhich snobbishly overshoot
the intellects of the audience in an effort to ignite their blind response; in response, Felix reduces
Johnsons behavior to a simplified formula aimed at communicating to the drinkers what is
actually at play, acting the perfect organic intellectual, debunking the hegemony at work in the
rhetorical masking of ideology. If [Harold Transome] knows its a bad thing to be hungry and
not have enough to eat, he ought to be glad that another fellow, who is not idle, is not suffering
in the same way (137). By reinforcing what he believes to be the central tenets of radicalism,
Felix hopes to circumvent the disingenuous constructions of Johnson. The irony, of course, is
that Johnson is attempting to motivate a radical voting basebut Felix, concerned less with ends
25

The conceit also points presciently to game theory, an avant-la-lettre interest which is repeated in Daniel
Derondas emphasis on gaming and chance, ambivalence, and intentional ambiguity. The modeling of complex,
independent and interdependent actors seeking their greatest individual advance is a cornerstone of the richer
Victorian novels like Vanity Fair, Bleak House, The Way We Live Now, and the Palliser seriesbut this estimation
achieves its apotheosis in George Eliots final novel; it is perhaps this, on some level, that permits Henry James to
lodge his critique but also to innovate the form in the direction of the subjective complexity and syntactical selfconvolutions evident in his final fictions. As the introduction to the dissertation remarks, the form of George Eliots
realism innovated and augmented over time, becoming increasingly complex as it sought to encompass more and
more actors, and greater and greater spaces; this exponentially increasing contingency pushes the scope of the realist
novel beyond the provincial confines of a novel like Middlemarch to the continent-hopping of Daniel Deronda.
26
In this aspect, of course, Felix Holt resembles Adam Bede. Dorothy Atkins and Andrew Lynn both make the
compelling argument that Adam Bede learns to manage his passions over timeand so proceeds toward a blessed
knowledge of the world, a plot device borrowed directly from Spinozas philosophy.

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than with means, has qualms with the delivery of the radical message. Because he is at root an
educator, this willful misrepresentation of the radical cause is cause enough for Felixs
intervention. Political rhetoric is, the novel ever reminds us, a dangerous game to play; it
inevitably incites the masses to action without regard for the inherent meaning of that action.
They can be whipped into a frenzy by these rhetorical flourishes. Spinoza remarks at length on
the inherent ambivalence of the masses. Inflamed by their passions, they can turn on a dime if
they are not operating in the realm of reason; passion, unthinking and uncritical, acts on the
quicksilver of emotional response, and cannot be held responsible for the rational meaning of
their action.
But Felixs passions are an inherent flaw in all constitutions The weak point to which
Felix referred was his liability to be carried completely out of his own mastery by indignant
anger; he is largely even-tempered and moderate, but When once exasperated, the
passionateness of his nature threw off the yoke of a long-trained consciousness in which thought
and emotion had been more and more completely mingled, and concentrated itself in a rage as
ungovernable as that of boyhood. He was thoroughly aware of the liability, and knew that in such
circumstances he could not answer for himself (284-285). What George Eliot is slyly pointing
out here is that despite the fact the Felix feels this passionateness as an inherent and particular
flaw in his constitution and it is, insofar as it overwhelms or governs his reasonit is not
actually exceptional. There is a gentle irony in the phrasing when once exasperated, the
passionateness of his nature threw off the yoke of a long-trained consciousness. Felix is not
alone in this sort of behavior: all men, once exasperated, will tend toward their passions and not
their reasons. The state of exasperation is the maximal frustration of Reason. But what is unique
to Felix is his awareness of these tendencies as flaws; it is because he desires to be better that he

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aspires to transcend this too-human tendency. This is the human condition, exasperation the
tipping point between rational behavior and passionate excess.
Politics, which is founded on the organization of large numbers of men, depends on this
nexus between thinking and feeling for its efficacy. In advance of the riot that unleashes so much
of the novels resolution, Felix encounters a Radical stumper in the market. Felix, a true
Radical inasmuch as he believes in the tenets that undergird Radicalism, and not necessarily a
believer in the political means by which these tenets are achieved, takes issue with the speakers
insistence that the vote is the only means by which men will achieve equality and libertyThat
was a true opinion spoken by your friend [the Radical stumper].But I think he expects voting
to do more towards it than I do (292). Felix, after all, believes inherently that political rhetoric
only obfuscates the ideological lattice work that furthers the enforced subservience and
dependence of the working man. I want the working man to have power, Felix explains, But
there are two sorts of power. Theres the power to do mischiefto undo what has been done
with great expense and labor, to waste and destroy, to be cruel to the weak, to lie and quarrel,
and to talk poisonous nonsense. Thats the sort of power that ignorant numbers haveIgnorant
power comes in the end to the same thing as wicked power; it makes misery (292). The power
that is granted to working men on the basis of their being numerous is to be distrusted: it makes
ignorant numbers, or crowds, instead of multitudes, in the Spinozist formulation. It is telling,
then, that George Eliot, in her translation of the Ethics translates the word multitudo as the
vulgar, instead of multitude, which most modern translations of the work use. In choosing to
translate it as the vulgar, George Eliot is intentionally calling into question the rational
potential of the multitude en toto, while Spinoza argues that the multitude can act rationally in its
own benefit, a line that Balibar confirms in his adaptation of Spinozas political philosophy.

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Multitudes without self-consciousness, acting purely on instinctual or passionate


inflammation, are mere crowds; theyre useful political engines, but notoriously difficult to
control and pathetically un-self-aware.27 William Mazzarella glosses the history in which George
Eliot is rooted, explaining the long history of the negative characterization of the crowd: crowds
and mobs take shape and flourish in the atmosphere of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,
where they express the raw potentials of mass democratization and the collective dangers of
urban anonymity (699).28 Citing the inimitable Gustave Le Bon, the popular late-nineteenthcentury theorist of the crowd, Mazzarella offers In crowds it is stupidity and not mother-wit that
is accumulated (701). This accords, somewhat, with Spinozas own vision of the multitude;
while he saw it as the primary mechanism by which political change could be effected, he was by
no means confident in its reason it was far more likely to react instinctively and passionately
than to be guided by truth. What Felix wants for the working man, instead, is another sort of
power altogether, one that enfranchisement wont enable. The sort of power that Felix desires is
that which clears the mist of ignorance and enables the working man to see lucidly the sort of
power he could objectively have if he were to cast off the strictures that ideology and society
impose upon him, and which he accepts. Votes would never give you political power worth
having while things are as they are now.A fool or an idiot is one who expects things to happen
that never can happen; he pours milk into a can without a bottom, and expects the milk to stay
there. The more of such vain expectations a man has, the more he is of a fool or idiot. And if any

27

Charles Dickens is foremost among Victorian novelists condemning the passionate violence and excesses of the
crowds, as is evidenced in A Tale of Two Cities and Barnaby Rudge. John Plotzs canonical work on the concept of
the mob and crowd in the eighteenth and nineteenth century is another optimal source to confirm this Victorian
skepticism.
28
To that end, Mazzarella explains, we no longer speak positively of a crowd theory. Today we speak of multitudes
rather than crowds. Or, to be more precise, if we want to suggest that the immanent potentials of a collective are
politically progressive we call this collective a multitude, whereas if we want to cast it as regressive we call it a
crowdcrowds are the dark matter that pull on the liberal subject from its past, whereas multitudes occupy the
emergent horizon of a postliberal politics (697).

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working man expects a vote to do for him what it never can do, hes foolish to that amount, if no
more (292). By explaining the effects of ignorance without reflexively returning to a definition
of ignorance, he invokes a folksy comparison with the milk canany auditor of his speech will
recognize that as foolish behavior. There is a challenge inherent in Felixs program, however.
The opposing side has a concrete political agenda on the table, the winning of the vote; Felixs
side has no such tangible benefit, only the absence of ignorance.
Arguing for the obliteration of ignorance is a difficult ploy, too prone to the exhausted
refrain of a parent. Why is it important? Because I said so. Felix attempts to describe a route
out of ignorance: The way to get rid of folly is to get rid of vain expectations, and of thoughts
that dont agree with the nature of things. Those who have had true thoughts about water, and
what it will do when it is turned into steam and under all sorts of circumstances, have made
themselves a great power in the world: they are turning the wheels of engines that will help to
change most things. But not engines would have done, if there had been false notions about the
way water would act (293). The only true elevation out of ignorance is to come to see the world
as it really is that is, achieve a rational, intuitive knowledge of immanence, to aspire to
Spinozas third kind of knowledge, blessedness. In doing so, George Eliot glosses through Felix
Holt, men will have a power akin to those who had studied the motive power of water as steam
they can harness their knowledge of the world into efficacious action along the lines of
enlightened self-interest. Like steam in an engine, too, Felix underscores the inherent power of
organization: the greatest power under heavenis public opinionthe ruling belief in society
about what is right and what is wrong, what is honourable and what is shameful (293). Felix,
like Spinoza, takes for granted that the organization of society, replete with its norms and its
standards, is the expression of the multitude; but what Felix is drawing on here means to incite

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the working men to realize that they have been passive pawns of the political organization of
those whose interest is to contain and harness the energy and labor of the working man. The
voting working man is of no use if that man is not educatedand in such a scenario proposed by
radical politicians, the majority rules. Felix sketches out the nightmarish scenario later indicated
by fascism and by Orwellian fantasies of dystopia, wherein the masses determine the conditions
of their own enslavement by refusing to become aware of the real conditions of their
enslavement. It is a slippery slope, he argues, in a system where political power lies in the hands
of seventy drunk and stupid votes undoing the efficacy and wisdom of the thirty sober men
(294). Felix uses intemperance and drunkenness as a fitting image of stupidity, fighting the longstanding political tradition to provide ample alcohol to the townspeople during election
campaigns to garner their vote and to temper their opinions.
It is in the explosive atmosphere of political rhetoric and alcohol consumption that the
central event of the novel occursthe riot that determines the fate of Felix Holt. The men of the
town had become excited with drink provided by Transomes men, devolving gradually into
confused deafening shouts, the incidental fighting, the knocking over, pulling and scuffling
(311). It is in this state that the men, tellingly a crowd and not a multitude, invoking the
irrationality of their activity, concern the higher-ups in the town enough to invoke the Riot Act
and to retrieve the military from a neighboring town in order to keep order. Order, an ideological
construct that enforces normalcy and sobriety, and deference to authority, are after all being
flaunted by the drunk men.
The danger when the passions are inflamed by alcohol and rhetoric, as George Eliot
notes, is that the destructive spirit tends towards completeness; and any object once maimed or
otherwise injured, is as readily doomed by unreasoning men as by unreasoning boys (314). In a

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point later grasped by revolutionary political thinkers, once inflamed, the mob will run its course
in its entirety: the destruction it seeks is complete.29 The men constituting such a crowd are no
more mature or developed than boys: their adult intellectual capacity is swamped by the
emotions familiar and available to boys. The crowd becomes, once manifest, an unthinking
assemblage of men swept along by their desires and emotions. The crowd is an immense
hooting and roaring, a primal force consumed and consuming those in its way (315). It is a
tangled business properly spoken of in the mass noun; there is no individual consciousness to
the crowd, but in Spinozist fashion, with a few exceptions, the crowd moves, acts, and thinks as
one.30 The crowd seeks violence because of the speeches delivered by Transomes men, and it
sweeps along the streets of Treby in search of more alcohol, victims for its passionate violence,
and aristocratic targets of its proto-proletarian anger.
Felix can do no more than brandish a sabre and assum[e] the tone of a mob-leader
(315) in a vain attempt to stem the inevitable destruction that the crowd seeks to wreak. It is this
self-fashion[ing] as a leader and a hero that Hollis remarks is at the root of George Eliots
lukewarm condemnation of Felixs ambitions, repeated throughout in the gentle irony that the
narrator attaches to Felixs aspirations to become a demagogue (165). Prone to passionate
excess himself, Felix understands the difficulty of managing or directing the outflow of

29

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negris celebration of jacquerie in Commonwealth is a perfect example of
contemporary political thinkers who seek to redeem the unconscious destructive drive in mass actions.
30
Warren Montag explains that the multitude acts by what Spinoza describes as the imitation of the affects, which
is means by which subjects absorb, reflect, or enact the prevailing or powerful affects around them. Montag cites
Matherone approvingly, explaining that for the latter, the imitation of the affects constitutes a primary inter-human
life that in turn provides the foundation for a state or society that can be moved by the affects or passions proper to
it (667). That imitation of the affects has nineteenth-century roots quite close to George Eliot, too; as Mazzarella
points out, Herbert Spencer, herald of nineteenth-century social evolutionism, identifies imitation as the foundation
of primitive learning (718). Charles Darwin, in The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animal, likewise
explains that affective performativity is something taught by animal parents and learned by animal children, to say
nothing of their inherent tendencies to perform affect (as in the physiological response of disgust, for instance).
Daniel Stern, a contemporary psychoanalytical theorist, puts great emphasis on the fact that these affects are learned
in the relationship between the mother and child, the child adopting and adapting the affective demonstrations of the
mother.

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unthinking and uncritical action. In the midst of the crowd, his blood was up, and he gets
swept into the current of the force of the crowd, whilst attempting to remain aloof and analytical
enough to head off the worst violence the crowd designs. George Eliot remarks that A man with
a definite will and an energetic personality acts as a sort of flag to draw and bind together the
foolish units of the mob, coalescing and directing them. The danger, of course, is the pure
ambivalence of the mob: whatever their motive, the appearance of this coalescing leadership can
ultimately determine the agenda and purpose of the crowd. In this instance, Felixs levelheadedness and his ultimately conservative purpose is to foreclose violence and destruction, and
to expend the energy of the crowd in the direction of its own self-immolation: he wants to get the
crowd by the nearest way out of the town, and induce them to skirt it on the north side with him,
keeping up in them the idea that he was leading them to execute some stratagem by which they
would surprise something worth attacking, and circumvent the constables who were defending
the lanes (317). Felixs leadership consists of an improvised strategy to preserve the mob
against the violence intended against it, while simultaneously preserving the lives of those
defending their individual businesses and homes against the power of the mob. This has to be
accomplished by way of sleight-of-hand; Felix knows that if the mob were to realize that he was
effectively attempting to prevent the mob from achieving its goals, it would turn its violence on
him. Felix knows that the mob is animated by no real political passion or fury against social
distinctions, and that instead it is motivated by vacuous rhetoric and physically ignited by
alcohol (317). The crowd, after all, is uncritical and unthinking; they all along have been
incapable of grasping, as a mass, what the true ideological and philosophic underpinnings of the
Radical platform means for them. Thus Felixs concern about the 30-70 split: even if working
men got the vote, 70% of them would be intemperate and uncritical, sheep to the rhetorical

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manipulations of the party. The remaining 30%, though educated and informed, would be
incapable of exercising the political choices that would maximally benefit the working man
because of the lack of a majority. As Spinoza, alone among political philosophers, reminds us,
governance is always de facto ratified by the will of the majority; inasmuch as they fail to
overthrow oppressive leadership, they persist in upholding and ratifying that oppression.
And so we have an ambivalent leader of a violently ambivalent mob: a perfectly
Spinozist quandary. This is politics for Spinoza: there is the uneasy assertion couched within the
mobs power that the mob could become the multitudethat is, could effectively and politically
self-determine its governance in spite of the coalition of forces external to it desiring its
containment. But the mob, because it has been motivated by uncomprehended rhetoric, and
physically motivated by intemperance, becomes a merely elemental force without significant
political meaning. Its leadership is absent from the startand only assumed by the man whose
interest is in the preservation and education of the working man; but his leadership is ironic and
conflicted. Joseph Butwin remarks that Felix Holt is Obliged to make himself a parody of the
kind of leadership he values[and,] ironically enough, he will have to prove at his trial that he
merely parodied the outward gestures of the sort of demagogue he most violently has
denounced (369). He is not leading them toward a raised consciousness or increased selfawareness, but rather back into the hands of the very system that perpetuates its management. In
other circumstances, the narrative notes, such leadership characterized by passionate
enthusiasmunder other conditions, makes world-famous deeds (317). There is a damning
irony, then, in the resolution of the episode when Mr Johnson, long Felixs antagonist in the
public-political arena, seals Felixs fate: I know this man very wellHe is a dangerous
characterquite revolutionary (321). At the risk of belaboring the point, of course, the irony is

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that Felixs leadership is anything but revolutionary; it is ultimately, fundamentally or even


radically conservative. Felix Holt has encountered the crowd and the crowd has won. George
Eliot is mired in a critique of the crowd that was common enough in her discursive history; our
contemporary politics instead celebrates multitudes as potentiate collectivity in which the
singularity of each of [its] constituent elements is preserved and which is the secret to its
particular efficacy (Mazzarella 707). Instead, she falls back into a historically common line of
thinking that demonizes the crowd as a buzzing block of unified affect whose unreasoning
action is limitlessly destructive (717). Hence, the vulgar: George Eliot sums up in a strategic
linguistic choice her feelings about the potential political productivity of collectively-generated
action. To be sure, this renders her politics as less endearingly and progressively (and
anachronistically) radical than we might like them to be; in an era that unthinkingly celebrates
the multitude as vital, immanent, and constituent (Mazzarella 707), her representation of the
failures of the crowd as the vulgar is disappointing. The ensuing trial of Felix Holt and the
resumption of the status quo serve as insistent reminders of the failures of politics, and the
incredibly difficult leap from an ethical philosophy to political praxis.
Though Balibar has implicit faith that the transition is easily enough made, the crowd
scene in the novel demonstrates the difficulty of realizing blessed knowledge for the multitude.
What it requirescommunication, according to Balibaris perpetually vexing and problematic.
The communication effected by the political speakers, the rallyers, is effective at inflaming the
passions of the political subjects. But the content is deliberately empty, and the flourishes mask a
void. The reasonable communication of Felix Holt lacks the socially recognized power and
validity of political speech. George Eliot demonstrates again and again that the scale of the
interpersonalwhether empowered by didacticism or sympathyis a plausibly efficacious

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vector for begetting change. But at the scale of the masses, George Eliot is not a believer. 31 For
better or worse, this shouldnt be surprising. Even novelists whose ostensible sympathies lie with
the masses, like Gaskell or Dickens, there is rarely the celebration of the masses as such North
and South and Barnaby Rudge famously demonstrate, like Felix Holt, the danger of the
spontaneous eruption of the masses.
We might consider Mazzarellas imprecations against contemporary theorists uncritical
endorsement of the multitude as a watchword by which George Eliot conceived of the difficulties
and dangers of collective political action: The point is not to oppose ethics to politics; rather, it
is to resist the trampling of the delicate ethical ground of social becoming and mutual making in
the mad rush to the end of history (726). In other words, instead of wholesale adopting politics
as the vehicle by which rights are secured and injustices are righted, we must attend first to the
space of ethics, which considers the interpersonal implications of these potential-collective
movements.
But there is hope yet. The novel, after all, is typically a private and individual artform.
Though novels can be read aloud, they are typically read silently by individuals. As the second
chapter on Middlemarch demonstrates, George Eliot actively attempts to reach, through the
medium of the novel and its relationship to the reader, the readers sympathy: she wants to
educate the readers sympathy. Here, too, George Eliot seeks to raise the political and ethical
consciousness of her readers by demonstrating through the oppositional examples of Esther and
the crowd the problematics of the transition from ethics to politics. Esther, confronted with a new
trouble after Felixs capture, finds that she soon cannot read books: her life was a book which

31

Nancy Armstrong makes a similar argument about trends in the novel over the Victorian era in How Novels Think.
She argues that the root of the novel is in the celebration of bourgeois individualism, and that only gradually over
the nineteenth century does the novel make space for the elaboration of collectivity and collective consciousness.
She marks this movements apogee in Stokers Dracula, which was tellingly published in 1897.

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she seemed herself to be constructingtrying to make character clear before her, and looking
into the ways of destiny (383). Esthers life is like a book, as ours is: and books are ethical
lessons. Books play out the course of particular crossroads with particular resolutions and
choices. We are presented, as readers, with both the problem and the problem of the problems
resolution. Esther suddenly takes a step back from her life to realize that the novels she had
always absent-mindedly read were but a preparation for the realization that she, too, was little
more than a character insofar as she, too, lived inside of a complex ethical model: life. Bamber
reminds us pithily that George Eliot believed that the way she could make a little difference for
the better was by writing novels which insist that we can unify our lives, that more
achievements need not be at odds with a rich and satisfying life, that it is in our real self-interest
to put aside petty and immediate desires in favor of our duty to our fellow men (435).
The crux of the novels messagewhich is not necessarily a total condemnation of
politicsrests, finally, with Esther. Esther, having been educated by Felix over the course of the
novel, has gained access to Spinozas blessed knowledge, having set aside foolish things. The
riot, in addition to taking Felix out of commission, has also effected the death of Tommy
Trounsem who, it is revealed, was the last living legitimate heir to the Transomes fortune. What
the twist of the novel enables, then, is for Esther to stand to inherit the estate in its entirety. Such
a change in fortune means that everything in Esthers old daydreams could become real, the
impossible appearing possible (361). Esther is forced into a conundrum: does she revert to her
oldest fantasies and fancies and claim the bounty of the estate, or does she reject the fortune in
order to preserve the lives and livelihoods of the Transome family? Esther is not inclined,
initially, to renounce her fortune out of hand: she was incapable, in these moments, of
condensing her vague ideas and feelings into any distinct plan of action, but she does find

316

herself perpetually asking herself what Felix Holt would do in a similar situation, as Dorothea
does in the absence of Ladislaw, and Gwendolen Harleth does with Daniel Deronda, all three
seeking to imagine the best course of action by the temporary projection of their abstracted
ethical guide (361-362). The space of this meditative, intellectual pause, is explored at greater
length in the foregoing chapter.
Aided by this pause, Esthers generous nature delighted to believe in generosity (391).
It behooves her, then, to renounce the possibility of marrying Harold for the surer joys of
marrying her teacher, Felix; at the end of the day, when the glamour of long-pondered wealth
falls away, she is left with her love of Felix, and her expanded ethical consciousness. And this
generosity agrees with her; it reverberates with her blessed knowledge of the world, earned vis-vis her instruction from Felix Holt. After all, this life at Transome Court was not the life of
her day-dreams: there was dullness already in its ease, and in the absence of high demand, and
the prospect of marriage with Harold Transome gives off an air of moral mediocrity (407).
Choosing the life of a Transome is not in-itself reprehensible, any more than Felixs option to
live off of the proceeds of his fathers patent medicines. But because they two have been
converted, their ethical consciousness expanded through the pedagogy of affect, they cannot rest
content within those limiting parameters, that moral mediocrity. Instead, they must choose the
more difficult road because it is the more rewarding, the better.32

32

George Eliot underlines the difficulty of this particular circumstance for Esther in a note that is too-infrequently
referenced in feminist readings of her work. Explaining the particulars of Esthers choice, George Eliot offers that
After all, she was a woman, and could not make her own lot. As she had once said to Felix, A woman must choose
meaner things, because only meaner things are offered to her. Her lot is made for her by the love she accepts. And
Esther began to think that her lot was being made for her by the love that was surrounding her with the influence of
a garden on a summer morning (407). George Eliot here feels compelled to repeat herselfword for wordin the
refrain about a womans choice. This compulsion to repeat and thus remind the reader serves as a particularly
forceful example of George Eliots belief in the social limitations imposed on women in the era; this gets played out
in several of her fictions, most notably, perhaps, in Middlemarch, Romola, and The Mill on the Floss.

317

Like Felixs conversion, Esther was growing out of that childhood into adulthood
(433). To ensure that she is making the correct decision, she begs to see Felix in prison, where
she marvels that after his harsh treatment at the hands of the crowd and the magistrate, he can
still believe in the edifying effect of poverty and living among working men. But the effect of the
crowd is that Felix claims he has seen behind failure, and that the only real failure to fear is
failure in cleaving to the purpose he sees to be the bestAs long as a man see and believes in
some great good, hell prefer working toward that in a way hes best fit for, come what may
(434-435). In this moment Esther is chastened: her tergiversation about marrying Harold
becomes in this moment for naughtand she gains the conviction she needs to adhere to her first
love of Felix. Felixs pedagogy here is unconscious: he does not know the full range of Esthers
quandary; she confesses she now understands what he means, better than [she] used to do. The
words of Felix at last seemed strangely to fit her own experience (435). All Felix can do is
innocently desire that Esther remember the old pedagogue and his lectures, ever reminding us
that he is, by vocation, a teacher (435). The lesson that Felix had been attempting for so longto
convince Esther to set aside her superficiality and close-mindedness for a more capacious
generosity and kinship with the masses, suddenly takes on the force of real content. Whereas her
capacity had been enlarged by the activity of being instructed before, the content of the lesson
has finally become applicable for Esther. This is the final moment of her instruction, and the
apex of their pedagogical relationship: it is this moment that permits Esther to decisively make
the renunciation that would keep her from communion with the working man, and with Felix.
And so, when he is brought before the court, and, defending himself, fails to compromise his
principles or falsify accounts of the event of the crowd, there is little hope for him save for a
compelling intervention, which Esther provides.

318

When a woman feels purely and nobly, that ardour of hers which breaks through
formulas too rigorously urged on men by daily practical needs, makes one of her most precious
influences: she is the added impulses that shatters the stiffening crust of cautious experience
(447). It is the power of a woman to break through deadlock and inertia to effect action. It is the
inspired ignorance of women that gives a sublimity to actions so incongruously simple, that
otherwise they would make men smileand so it is that Esther demands to speak on behalf of
Felix at his trial (447). Reiterating the language of affect and affective education, Her feelings
were growing into a necessity for action, rather than a resolve to act. She could not support the
thought that the trial would come to an end, that sentence would be passed on Felix, and that all
the while something had been omitted which might have been said for him (447-448). She is
driven by an intuitive knowledge of what needs to be donethat the testimony needs to be
complete, and that she needs to speak for him. She becomes in this moment a perfect organic
intellectual: she sees, subconsciously, that a womans testimony would temper the hard edges of
Felixs intellectual defense, and that her beauty and prominence would, if nothing else, mitigate
his condemnation. She sees in this moment the state of patriarchy and knows that her best action
is to act in accordance with patriarchys expectations for women in public. Doing so, with no
blush on her face, it was as if a vibration, quick as light, had gone through the courtThere
was something so nave and beautiful in this action of Esthers, that it conquered every low or
petty suggestion even in the commonest minds (448-449). This is Esthers decisive moment
because she is able to weigh out what suits her self-interestFelixs release or reduced sentence
and the possibility of his doing more good in her lifeagainst the trade-offthat she might play
into patriarchys expectations for women. In this way, Starr is confirmed: Rather than becoming

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a feminine appendage to male vocationEsther performs all of the great tasks of the novel
(68).
Ultimately, Felixs intervention into the politics of the age failshe cannot effectively
control the unleashed passions of the crowd, channeled along the uncritical pathways bespoken
by the Radicals empty rhetoric. The aftermath of the riot is predictably grim, and Felixs
conviction of manslaughter means that he absorbs the full judicial effect of his assumed
leadership. The failure of politics, however, does not entail a failure of Felixs ethical vision.
Indeed, the inevitability of the mobs violence is only a perverse proof of his foundational
assertion, that men need to be educated and guided by their intellect, not by their unthinking
passions. The space of the crowd then serves as the spontaneously dystopian manifestation of
politics: it is the space that erupts when rhetoric is effective; its damage serves as proof of such
rhetorics always-ambivalent danger.
Politics, in this particular novel, though it has the potential to make of individual
multitudes through appeals to individuals intelligent self-interest, nevertheless too frequently
attempt to circumvent the difficult labor of pedagogy by instead appealing to the more-easilyexcitable passions. At heart, Felix defends the core principle that the crowd operated byI hold
it blasphemy to say that a man ought not to fight against authority: there is no great religion and
no great freedom that has not done it, in the beginning (442). It is, however, the danger of that
broad philosophical statement that it can be taken into any direction by the motive force of
political belief. Taking these shortcuts is the typical work of politics: it is this labor that
maintains bourgeois hegemony and the exploitative status quo, according to Felix Holt and
George Eliot. Politics keeps the complacent and self-serving in power, and renders clerkly
gentility the seeming-meritocratic aspiration of working men. Working men, participating in the

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very logic that enslaves them to the service of the capitalists and middle classes, willingly submit
to the logic of individualist, competitive self-advancement.
What Felix Holt hopes to doand what George Eliot accomplishes through this novel as
a philosophical reflection (as opposed to a successful work of historical materialism)is to
reveal that such logic is never more than rhetoric aimed at sundering the working man from the
certain knowledge of his own exploitation and alienation. In this way, George Eliot is not far
from the philosophical underpinnings of Marx. But unlike Marx, George Eliot has no faith in the
inevitability of the working classs triumph, nor does she advocate the revolutionary means by
which the masseshere, damningly, the mobwill seize the power that they aspire to have.33
George Eliot wants to rigorously delink the power of the masses from the passionate incitement
of their organization, unlike Marx. George Eliots means, the route of the organic intellectual,
Felix fears, will never reach more than the thirty sober men out of a hundred; but it is
nevertheless, inasmuch as it fundamentally changes and broadens individuals capacity to know
and to be affected, also increases the efficacy of these individuals when they come together as
multitudes in enlightened self-interest. Where Marx endorses the sudden shift of revolutionary
action and violence, George Eliot and Felix speak to a more pragmatic, and historically
efficacious, process of consciousness expansion and gradual action. In this mode, Horowitzs
reading of George Eliots politics seems most accurate: In the end, Felix Holt narratesthe
inadequacy of political praxis narrowly understoodPolitics alone, Eliot insists, cannot give us
back our power to shape history (27).
The novel ends, as many Victorian novels do, with the vision of a married Felix and
Esther, complete with offspring. A traditional ending, it nevertheless represents something more

33

Hobson goes perhaps too far in asserting that, ultimately, George Eliots advocacy for the patient and educated
self-reflection of the working classes entails that Eliot shares Marxs historical teleology (32).

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ambitious than merely a marriage contract celebrating the romantic aspirations of its characters.
Instead, the marriage between Felix and Esther is a multitude of sortsthe coming-together to
two like-minded ethical actors; united in marriage, the novel implies, they are capable of
producing more good than either one or the other on his/her own. Felixs goal, too, of setting up
a lending library to service the working population is also a celebration of his pedagogic impulse
(474). Through the dissemination of books and knowledge, Felix and Esther will be able to
pursue their ethical goals without ostensible recourse to the faulty system of politics. Though
dogs-eared and marked with bread-crumbs, these books will nevertheless impart to their
readers the knowledge of their own condition that the working men so unfortunately lack; by
being the force behind the library, Felix and Esther are fulfilling their ethical promise as organic
intellectualshe as teacher, she as provider.

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CHAPTER FIVE: BLOOD AND BONE: GEORGE ELIOT AND THE HORIZON OF NATIONALISM
Yet Baruch Spinoza confessed, he saw not why Israel should not again be a chosen nation.
Mordecai in Daniel Deronda (536)

In George Eliots later work, the concern that she displays for the quotidian lives of
everyday protagonists is augmented by a growing concern for collectivity, cosmopolitanism, and
world-historical struggles. Indeed, her last three major fictional worksThe Spanish Gypsy
(published in 1868), Middlemarch (from 1871 to 1872) and Daniel Deronda (1876)show a
trend toward a vision of the greater, multitudinous lives of people, in the sense in which they
develop as individuals embedded among and impinging upon other people. Although The
Spanish Gypsy was published before Middlemarch, its ethical logic has more likeness to Daniel
Deronda, though the interim conclusions arrived at in Middlemarch bear on the philosophical
trajectory of the earlier long poem. And whereas Middlemarch, as developed in earlier chapters,
takes its cues from Spinozist ethical philosophy in its elucidation of an individualist,
interpersonal ethical imperative to transcend mans essential egoism and affirm the validity and
presence of an other, and likewise describes through its deployment of natural-scientific and
organic metaphors the overarching immanent impingement of all living things, The Spanish
Gypsy takes as its subject matter explicitly the constitution and development of collective
consciousness. Dorothea may learn to account for equivalent centres of self, but Fedalma, the
titular Gypsy, learns the binds of kinship and obligation towards not merely one other, but the
collective other. It is this lesson, hard-learned and tortuously dramatic in The Spanish Gypsy,
long remarked-upon by critics as being a disappointing departure from the rest of her oeuvre,

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both structurally and thematically, that is transposed in George Eliots final novel Daniel
Deronda. 1
George Eliots fiction, when taken on the whole, is a study in the resolution of a central
problematic: that of mans relation to other men. Critics are invested, of course, in naming this
relationship between individuals, and a large number of them (myself included) have settled on
the term sympathy to describe that relationship. And certainly, the language of sympathy, so
present in her earliest fictions, is an apt name for describing the duty each man holds to the
consciousness of the other. As such, the Scenes of Clerical Life are a study in the tension and
suspension in which any two characters can be held: Amos and Milly Barton are held in tension
with the Countess Czerlaski, which ends poorly for all involved, effectively foregoing the
closure that a proper resolution or that tension would permit; Gilfils love for Christina keeps the
two in a tense opposition with each other, the latter unable to overcome her reluctanceand the
resolution is her death, to Gilfils great grief; and Janet Dempster manages to establish a
reciprocal, mutual relationship with the Reverend Tryan, only for him to be subjected to an
ignominious death of consumption before their reciprocity can be consummated. Adam Bede
likewise throws Hetty Sorrel to an ignoble death, as she is unable to transcend her essential selfcenteredness in order to recognize Adam Bedes good, and true, love for her. But Adam Bede
takes us one step closer to the closure of this relational narrative tension when Dinah Morris
sacrifices her commitment to Gods word in order to marry Adam at the end of the novel. The
closure is unsatisfactory to many modern readers, however, as this gesture requires her to
sacrifice her personal ambitions for the sake of a retrograde narrative of marital bliss and duty.

Sylvia Marks cites a round-up of critical response to George Eliots work that the poem has sunk under its own
weight, and that it is now virtually unreadable, accounting for critical dismissal of the poem in George Eliots
oeuvre, even as she attempts to argue that it is less of an oddity in her canon when it is read against her later works
(184).

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The Mill on the Floss further complicates the triadic relationships tentatively proffered in Adam
Bede, but once more the novels conclusion requires sacrifice, as Maggie Tulliver, unable to
reconcile the social and moral pressures of being the shuttlecock between Phillip Wakem and
Stephen Guest, is plunged into the icy embrace of the Floss.
Silas Marner marks an evolution in this relational tension. Silas Marner, at odds with his
community in Lantern Yard, escapes for the bucolic community of Raveloe, whereupon the
miraculous discovery of Eppie at his hearth effects his incorporation into the fabric of Raveloe
society. Silas Marner stops short, however, of implicating the social ramifications of that
welcome by figuring his reentry into society in the singular person of Dolly Winthrop. Though
there are certainly hints and allusions that Silas has become a valued member of the larger
society of Raveloe, this dense and short novel retreats from a larger picture of social life and
takes refuge in the symbolically-wrought relationship between Silas and Dolly. Felix Holt, the
Radical, is the first novel of George Eliots that takes a step back from a tight focus on the
knowable community and gives a more sweeping panorama of English society. Even so, as
discussed in the chapter on Felix Holt in this dissertation, Felixs self-identification as a working
man, and his interventions into the proto-democratic rumblings of the Chartist movement,
nevertheless only reluctantly and elusively court the larger world-historical ramifications of that
political movement.
The Spanish Gypsy emerges into this developmental thread by rehashing and
reformulating familiar relational tropes from these earlier works. The last chapter explored the
ways in which Felix Holt, the Radical, is a curious text insofar as it maps the gradual transition
in George Eliots work from a consideration of an interpersonal ethics of affect-based sympathy
to a consideration of the ethical mechanics of politics. While Felix Holt interrogates the logic of

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politics in his pointed identification with the working man and his inadvertent collusion with and
leadership of the masses during the election riot, it is actually Esther Lyons who receives the
most profound lesson in the gradation between ethics and politics. For all of George Eliots
seeming disparagement of women, a constant rejoinder of feminist critics disappointed by the
apparent misogyny or limitations of George Eliots gender politics, her female characters
nevertheless occupy the center of her philosophical investigations. While Titos ambition may be
the most operatic element of Romola, it is nevertheless the figure of Romola that the reader
follows in the novel; likewise, in spite of the title Felix Holt, the Radical, it is the figure of Esther
Lyonsand her mysterious provenancethat unites the two loose threads of the novel, and who
typifies the educative evolution that George Eliot builds out of Spinozas Ethics. Esthers
educationlearning the capacity to identify with the less fortunate against the ease of identifying
with the well-to-do; learning the ethical imperative to simultaneous self-sacrifice and selfpreservation; learning the ability to act generouslyis an extension of the lessons in sympathy
that most of George Eliots earlier novels proffer. Preceding Middlemarch, it probes at the
limitations of political involvement, gently chastising Felixs self-important working-man
identifications, and the novel shows up the alienation and isolation that self-conscious political
identification implies.2 And so Felix Holt fails to engage the more collective dimensions of
political participation, even as it ostensibly takes it as its subject. This brings us to the last three
major works of George Eliots career: The Spanish Gypsy, Middlemarch, and Daniel Deronda.
Setting aside Middlemarch allows us to note the striking similarities that The Spanish
Gypsy and Daniel Deronda share. If I were to persist in a developmental narrative of George
Eliots fictional career, I might note that Middlemarch represents the culmination of the earlier

In one available reading, Middlemarch shows up what Carolyn Betensky demonstrates is the damning hybridity
and arrogance of Felix Holts intentional identifications with the working man.

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line of ethical developmenta fact that, considering it comes after The Spanish Gypsy, helps to
account for this latter texts relative critical unimportance.3 If Middlemarch takes for its focus the
furthest horizons of the immanence of the knowable community with its attendant ethical
imperatives to the others within ones social sphere, The Spanish Gypsy and Daniel Deronda
take for their foci the obligations we have towards the people (here meant plurally) we are,
whether we know them or not. Both texts move from the arena in the interpersonal, private,
affective impingement that individuals have on one another, into a more evolved and substantial
exploration of the value of collective, public, and political impingement.
While many critics focus on the likeness between George Eliots next significant work
and her last published novel, Daniel Deronda, The Spanish Gypsy is a crucial lynchpin in the
longer developmental arc of George Eliots philosophy, and it serves as an interesting
intermediate step between the feminine political education so wholly present in Felix Holt, and
the saintly ambitions of Dorothea in Middlemarch remarked upon in its Preface. But unlike
either of those two texts, and in the moment that puts it closest to George Eliots last novel, The
Spanish Gypsy pushes into a terrain that neither Felix Holt nor Middlemarch can fully engage
the terrain of the fully-realized public-political.
The Spanish Gypsy is a fascinating study, then, in George Eliots engagement with the
Janus face of ethics and politics. While making a distinction between these two metaphysicallyloaded abstractions can be a bit of a minefield, it is clear from George Eliots exploration of them
in Felix Holt that, at the very least, while ethics does imply a movement towards a larger, more
3

There are, of course, numerous reasons for The Spanish Gypsy having fallen out of favor with readers and critics.
For one thing, the erstwhile poetic form of the narrative makes it off-putting to a readership that has trended
strongly toward an appreciation of prose; George Eliots poetic skills, too, never quite measured up to the poetry of
her prose. For another thing, the narrative of the poem is frustrating and unsatisfying, and does not provide the
satisfying closure that Middlemarch or The Mill on the Floss do; it does not give the reader a sense of an ending in
its final, widening vista of Fedalma on the cliffs, preparing to disembark for Gypsy Zion, a scene explored in the
final chapter.

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collective engagement and responsibility, ethics, as such, is still and largely rooted in the
individual. Politics, on the other hand, is something that resides in the public sphere: it implies
public identifications and collective actions.4 The Spanish Gypsy locates the entirety of its
narrative tension at the intersection of the personal and private sphere, governed in optimal
instances by ones ethical impulses, and the public sphere, which is governed by politics. The
two axes are not necessarily mutually exclusive: as George Eliot explores in Felix Holt, Esther
Lyonss relinquishment of her rightful claim to the Transome fortune in order to claim
identification with Felix Holt and the working man, and live a modest, virtuous life is both an
ethical and a political act. The act originates in the private spherein the knowledge of her
origin and the implications that that origin has for herbut culminates in the public sphere,
when Mrs. Transome is given to understand that Esther will make no claim to the fortune that is
ostensibly hers, thus allowing the Transomesand by extension, a whole class of landed
gentryto persist in the public, political sphere. Esther Lyons can have her cake, and eat it, too.
But in The Spanish Gypsy, these two axes do not coincide: in fact, the axis composed of the
individual, private, and ethical is in direct conflict with the axis of the collective, public, and
political. Therein lies the drama of The Spanish Gypsy, and later, in a modified form, Daniel
Deronda.
The Spanish Gypsy is a romantic tale of the beautiful Fedalma, who, over the course of
the narrative, finds her relationship with the Spaniard Don Silva tested when the Spanish
nationalistic persecution of the Gypsies provides a chance moment in which Fedalma discovers

Michael Warners Publics and Counterpublics is an important text for understanding how the machinery of
political discourse creates both the notion of a public but also begets, in turn, the space needed for the elaboration
of opposition and rejection, what he calls a counterpublic. This book-length work augments the series of articles
he has co-authored with Lauren Berlant exploring the notion of a body politic, and although his work is less
discussed than the more overtly politicized texts of left and post-Marxist politics, it nevertheless acutely remarks
upon the Foucauldian power of discourse to call into being social collectivities.

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herself to be a daughter of Zarca, the Zincalo leader. In this circumstance, Fedalma is forced to
make a decision: either continue to assume a (false) Spanish identity and persist in marrying Don
Silva, or to capitulate to the collective ethical duty that Zarca foists upon her concurrent with a
resumption of her Zincalidad. She chooses the latter, demonstrating the turn in George Eliots
fiction from the insistence on the obligation we have toward the singular other individual to an
insistence on the duty we have toward the people to whom we belong. People, here, is a
weighty term, encapsulating as it does the ways in which the concepts of family (Fedalmas
obligation toward her father, Zarca), kinship (the identification that she has always had as
Spanish is superseded by her interpellation as a Gypsy), and nation (inasmuch as the Spanish
are aggressively marking out the internal boundaries of their nation vis--vis the expulsion of the
Gypsies, who in turn mount a defensive claim to nationhood) are inextricably intertwined in
forcing Fedalmas hand. It is this clustering of terms and those terms coherence under a rubric of
the political (and public, and collective) that so firmly accounts for this poems similarities to
Daniel Deronda.
It is Fedalmas femininity that marks The Spanish Gypsys continuity with Middlemarch,
whose preface and epilogue alike insist on the particularly feminine nature of that selfless selfsacrifice that consumes Fedalma and Dorothea. Accounting for the departure of Daniel Deronda
from these other fictions, Susan Meyer characterizes the transition thus: in [Daniel Deronda]
Eliot is trying to resolve the tension between self-fulfillment and fulfillment of societal role that
has created the discontentment in her heroines lives, displacing George Eliots typical feminine
arc onto a man (734). Whereas in The Spanish Gypsy, the narrative that stages the conflict
between the ethical and political is centered in the life of a female charactermuch like, as in
Meyers reading, Middlemarch is about the bridling and disciplining of Dorotheas ambition

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Daniel Deronda relocates this central crisis to the life of a man. So whereas The Spanish Gypsy,
insofar as it stages its central drama in the body of a feminine protagonist, continues the central
thrust of George Eliots fictional, developmental arc, Daniel Deronda takes that works central
dramatic device, and places it in the subjectivity of a man. What marks Daniel Deronda as an
evolution from The Spanish Gypsy is its even denser investment in the logics of race, nation, and
kinship, which preoccupy Daniels half, the Jewish half of the novel.
It is the nexus of family, kinship and nation that creates in George Eliots work a clearer
vision of multitude. Paradoxically, the multitude with which these two texts are concernedthe
Zincalo/Gypsies, and the Jewsare never fully realized in the text, but are nevertheless far more
real than in the novel in which the multitude is described, and described as such in Felix Holt.
It seems that, although the multitude in Felix Holt coheres around the identifiable commonality
of labor and subjugation, those qualities lack the stickiness that blood offers her in these other
two works. The mob/multitude (the vulgar in her translation of Spinoza) is passionate,
intemperate, and violent; but she is anxious to rescue the notion of multitude and rehabilitate it
by investing it with a deeper, more rational (and affective) logic of kinship.
The upshot of the coupling of these two texts according to their central dramatic
preoccupations is that they cohere into a ramified, mutually-reinforced vision of George Eliots
politics. By staging the conflict and the intersection of the ethical and political axes, and
coagulating the conflicting constructs of kinship and nation under the rubric of a hemologically5
essentialist construction of culture, George Eliot stages a thorough, double critique of Spinozas

I will be using this neologism throughout to signify the density of George Eliots investment in a biologically
essentialist national identity, by way of invoking the transmission of ethnicity, race, and nation in the biological
figure of blood and inheritance.

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multitude-driven political philosophy.6 While George Eliot quite clearly subscribes to a Spinozist
ethical philosophy that requires the individual to transcend their egoism and engage and affect
equivalent others, she balks at the extension of that philosophy into the separate, outer realm of
the public and political collective responsibility to the multitude. And while the ethical revolves
around the recognition of the presence and viability of the other individual, George Eliot cannot
fully endorse the obliteration of that individuated subjectivity in the composition of a political
collectivity in the form of a multitude.7 The resolution of both of these fictional texts in a vision
of melancholic nationalism and a disappointing Zionism, constitutes George Eliots subtle
critique of the operating logics of Spinozas politics. George Eliots version of emergent
nationalism, however, grounded as it is in expressions of culture and logics of blood kinship, is
only one of the logical endgames of a Spinozist political organization, but insofar as her
ambivalence about this nationalism registers in this oblique critique of Spinozist philosophy, she
predicts and precedes many postcolonial thinkers who seek to register the inherent problematics
of nationalism.
In order to understand the ways in which the various terms at stake in this essay cohere
those of blood, kinship, nation, nationalismit is important to briefly work through George
Eliots last completed work, the hard-to-categorize Impressions of Theophrastus Such. For one, it
is a departure from the novels that have so charmed readers and critics; for another, it is more
organically reminiscent of her journalistic career, being interlinking, narrated essays on a range
of concepts and political topics. In many ways, the essays, despite their pronounced and distinct

Fionnula Dillances essay on The Natural History of German Life goes a long way to save it from critics who
have hunted-and-pecked choice morsels on realism, and instead grounds a new reading of it in its eminently
Victorian association of culture with race and nation.
7
As William Mazzarella remarks, it should be no surprise that a nineteenth-century writer was skeptical of the
power and potential of the multitude, as discourse on collective political organization in the era was dominated by
political theory that conflated collectivity with crowds, and so demonized them.

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narrative voice and persona, read more like creative exercises in essayistic writing. In spite of
these complications, any reader seeking to make sense of the Jewish plot and nationalist
sentiments explored somewhat anomalously in George Eliots final novel (and in The Spanish
Gypsy) need first take into account George Eliots crowning ruminations on nationalism and
culture vis--vis the chapter entitled The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!.
The Impressions has long suffered from critical neglectthe editor of a recent
publication of the text, Nancy Henry, points out the inability of George Eliot critics to grapple
intelligently or intelligibly with the anomalous text (xiv-xv). To be fair, however, in spite of the
fact that the book was successful upon its initial publication, it was largely so because of the
reputation that George Eliot had built up, and not because the text was engaging or particularly
accessible; indeed, its deepest dyed pedantry make it prickly and unappealing (xiii-xiv). But
this text tackles the concept of nationalism directly and forcefully, in contrast to the ways in
which Daniel Deronda and The Spanish Gypsy more elegantly and elliptically work through.
This essays conclusions about nationalism are convoluted and elusive.
Nationalism is largely understood to be both an ideology (when it coalesces particularly
around a given national identity) and as an ideological force more abstractly. In terms of the
latter, it is an ideological force precisely because it serves as the consolidation and intersection of
multiple ideological forcesit can be a locus of geographical exceptionalism, racial
individuation, sexual normativity, economic self-identification, cultural exceptionalism, and
many other ideological strands. As both a discrete ideology and as, conceptually, an ideological
nexus, we must not neglect that nationalism(s) as such has external, material consequences.
Since the nineteenth century, nationalism has evolved into an ideological force primarily
associated with and deployed by hegemonic national powers. Indeed, in most postcolonial

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readings of nationalism, nationalism seems to benefit almost exclusively the aggressive victors
of history: those who colonized, who dominated, who exercised their hegemony culturally or
ideologically. For many contemporary theorists of nationalism, such a nationalism is the luxury
of these peoples and nations: it culminates as an expression of the pride of being
British/French/Dutch/American/Afrikaaner, etc. derived directly from the historical acts of
dominance and aggression.
Nationalism is also deployed as a defensive gesture, as a way of insisting on an identity
discrete from the imposed nationalist identity of hegemonic, colonial, imperial forces. But
perhaps all nationalisms always involve counter-identification: insofar as every supposedly
independent, sovereign nation-state has to defend its independence against the claims of rival
nation-states, the basic ideological mechanisms of national identity and loyalty will be
everywhere the same (compare Slovenia-Croatia-Serbia-Yugoslavia today) (Brantlinger 273).
To this end, for instance, Frantz Fanon acknowledges the power of the oppositional pendulum
swing by colonized subjects: it is a healthy compensatory mechanism by those colonized to insist
on their validity and difference from the aggressive colonizer. By doing so, an identity that is
free from the psychosocial baggage of the mater