The philosophy and art of George Eliot
Bailey, Mildred Frances
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Among nineteenth-century writers, George Eliot was best fitted by talent and by purpose to introduce the psychological novel as a new type of fiction. From the outset of her career as a novelist, she was convinced that a writer's first obligation was a moral one. In her own works she emphasized two major doctrines - that of renunciation and that of retribution. She chose the novel as the best medium for moral teaching because it was the popular literary type of the age. Her moral principles were not those of any particular religious creed, but were the universal ideals of reason, love of mankind, and renunciation of mean and selfish aims. Several distinct factors helped to shape her course toward a career in fiction: first, her brilliant, analytical mind and her almost photographic memory; second, her early introduction to the new philosophies of her age which led to her renunciation of all religious dogma, though she retained the ethical principles of Christianity; third, her union with Lewes which was unorthodox, but which was beneficial both to her personal and her professional life; fourth, the stored-up memories of people, scenes, and incidents which she later used in her stories. To understand the works of "George Eliot," one must know the elements of the religious, social, and moral philosophy of Marian Evans. Her ideals included the belief that morality did not depend upon particular religious creeds, and that all religions had contributed to the moral growth of man, but Christianity expressed the world's greatest ethical code; that the basis of a moral life was a social consciousness in which man considered the welfare of all human beings as part of his moral duty. Her social ideals also included that of unselfish social activity, or renunciation, and that of tolerance. She believed, too, that the social effects of one's deeds were far-reaching, and the results of wrongdoing were unalterable and inescapable - in brief, the doctrine of retribution. All these doctrines found expression in her writings. George Eliot's ideals of literature were of the highest order. She believed, first, in the moral obligation of the author, and felt that a writer who did not recognize this power of literature to teach mankind was prostituting his art. She despised writing for mere profit, and refused to resort to the popular methods by which writers became wealthy, or to cater to popular taste. She wrote at the dictates of mind, heart, and conscience, not at the dictates of critics, publishers, or the reading public. She believed in setting a high standard and religiously holding to it, and in judging an author's work by the contribution he made to the spiritual wealth of mankind. In determining the meaning and art of George Eliot's works, the present study has taken them as an "epic whole" in which three main elements are outstanding: the scope of her works, their consistent moral teaching, and their amazing perception and portrayal of character. In scope, her novels covered a cross-section of all classes of society and various social problems, as well as all types of individuals. Her moral teaching involved the two main theses of renunciation and retribution expressed in each of her works. The theme of retribution was the stronger in Adam Bede and in Daniel Deronda, while in Silas Marner it was practically the whole story. Both doctrines were developed in Felix Holt and in Middlemarch with neither one predominant. Their fullest and perhaps best expression was in the novel Romola, in which the principle of retribution was wrought out in the evil deeds of Tito Melema and his violent death, and that of renunciation was illustrated in the unselfish life of Romola. Other moral elements included in the novels were problems of illicit love and of marriage, the ethics of certain professions, as medicine, and the moral ideal of woman's obligation to use her talents in the field of social welfare and reform. Character-portrayal in the novels revealed George Eliot's ability to depict the inward as well as the outward man; in this talent she resembled Shakespeare. Vividly she portrayed the weakness of the individual in seeking to "rationalize" his acts - that is, justify his wrongdoing. Equally sharply she delineated the tortures the mind suffers as a result of evil doing. She showed clearly that man's failure to act morally resulted from some weakness in his character which, when put to the test, betrayed him. George Eliot's most normal, wholesome characters were the Garths in Middlemarch; her strongest character was Adam Bede; her most humorous were Mrs. Poyser in Adam Bede and the Tulliver clan in The Mill on the Floss; her meanest types were Rosamond Vincy in Middlemarch and Grandcourt in Daniel Deronda. It was her powerful character-portrayal that gave force to her moral teaching. George Eliot's contribution to literature included these things: a Profound commentary on human life and problems and the laws of rational behavior; a comprehensive view of the universal elements in society and in individuals a high standard of literary art which held firmly to its moral purpose; and a new type of fiction - the psychological novel, which has become common in twentieth-century prose. Great truths struggled to find a voice in George Eliot - and found a voice which was clear, strong, tender and full of inspiration, teaching a profound lesson to mankind.
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