English, Department of



Margaux Fragoso

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 37 (2006) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019 (37)


In her final book, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, George Eliot vocalizes her contempt for writers who dismiss morality 'as a sort of twaddle for bibs and tuckers, a doctrine of dulness, a mere incident in human stupidity' (Impressions 134). It is well known that Eliot subscribed to a complex system of morals that each successive novel brings closer to fruition. Eliot's last novel Daniel Deronda is her closest inspection of the conflict between egoism and morality. It explores the psyche of a woman who is made to develop moral sensibilities: Gwendolen's 'bad' luck in marrying Grandcourt creates conditions that foster her spiritual and moral growth. Romola presents an inversion of this theme: Tito Melema is the recipient of many 'lucky' occurrences such as political connections, marriage to a beautiful wife, money; all of this assists in the cultivation of evil in Tito: every success leads him farther from any kind of redemption. With all this emphasis on contingency, it should come as no surprise that Daniel Deronda opens with Gwendolen at a roulette table losing her money: unlike Tito she will suffer a run of bad luck, and also unlike Tito, she will have an opportunity to redeem herself.

The Marquis de Sade also deals with issues of contingency, destiny, and morality but unlike Eliot, Sade sees morality as a static trait, which is clearly illustrated in Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue, 1787. Bad luck and the resultant agonies at the hands of her malefactors produce no palpable change in the victimized Justine's code of unceasingly ineffective moral principles. As noted above, Eliot presents the acquisition of morality as a lifelong process often facilitated by suffering. To her, morality is dynamic and ever-changing: an initially kindhearted character such as Tito may become evil due to poor choices; and inversely, an egoistic and sometimes cruel person like Gwendolen Harleth can develop a system of morals. Sade portrays morality as consistently flat and empty as a value: despite incredible torture, the virtuous Justine's morals are fixed; she never adapts her morality to suit the demands her environment presses on her. To Sade, morality is a form of idiocy, even lunacy; whereas to Eliot, morality is the highest form of intelligence and creative capacity: characters like Dorothea and Maggie, both presented as intrinsically moral, continue to adjust their moral systems based on the needs unsuitable environments have engendered in them: Dorothea marries the morally inferior Will, Maggie continues to visit Philip in the Red Deeps in direct opposition to her brother's wishes. Eliot views morality as an active force directly linked with and fed by the imagination while Sade perceives the opposite: it is immorality that is based on the imaginative faculties; morality lacks any creative agency and is therefore incapable of invention. Their systems are so diametrically opposed that reading Sade in conjunction with Eliot creates a compelling dialectic: what is the relationship of morality to imagination?