Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 48 (2017)
I wish to contend that Eliot in Middlemarch (1871-2) frequently tries to attenuate the sympathy that we, her readers, feel for her characters, and that this process of attenuation relies on emphasizing, rather than diminishing, forms of distance between reader and character. She checks our sympathies through techniques of visual staging that press her characters farther away from us in our imagined fields of vision, and through philosophical commentary that emphasizes the commonplace nature of the yearnings and sufferings these characters experience, instead of allowing us to see those circumstances as highly particularized. Despite the standard moral-philosophical observation that sympathy is vulnerable to distance, despite the common rejoinder that literary works can mitigate the weakening effects of distance on our sympathies, despite Eliot's prominent advocacy of this claim for literature's value, and despite Middlemarch's alleged position as the richest elaboration of her views on sympathy, Eliot continually inserts distance between reader and character at the very moments when the narrative seems most insistently to demand sympathetic proximity.