Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 24 (1993)
Towards the climax of Felix Holt Esther Lyon moves centre stage. Mist around her own history and that of Transome Court dissolves to reveal a vista of possibilities. The narrator comments: 'Esther found it impossible to read in these days; her life was a book which she seemed to be constructing - trying to make character clear before her, and looking into the ways of destiny'. This lovely sentence might serve as the epigraph to David Carroll's study. A character in a novel, who is well-versed in romance narrative, finds herself an author, 'constructing' the book of her own life, interpreting not only her past but seeking to project its varying narrative lines into a future where they might cohere into a satisfactory ending. The actual reader of Felix Holt is engaged in a similar task, making sense of the interrelations of lives which have individually claimed our particular interest at different moments in the story. And there is the so-called omniscient narrator, opening up for the reader possibilities of interpretation which even she cannot finally determine.
According to David Carroll moments such as this, which occur throughout George Eliot, focus most intensely her 'awareness of the fundamental role of interpretation in all areas of life', an awareness which drives her to 'redefine the nature of Victorian fiction: its presentation of character, the role of the narrator, the structure of its narrative, the depiction of social and historical change'. The literary slant of this sentence is important. In his Introduction Carroll outlines the dynamic role of hermeneutics in Victorian intellectual life and rehearses the evidence that George Eliot was well equipped philosophically to enter at the highest level the debate on how to 're-create meaning and coherence' in the face of the 'loss of traditional forms of belief. What is most valuable about Carroll's approach, however, is that it emphasizes that Eliot's contribution to hermeneutical endeavour is her novels. The intellectual who translated Feuerbach and could cope with discussions about Schleiermacher over breakfast with Lewes, was an imaginative artist, who recognized story-telling as fundamental to human beings in their attempt to make sense not only of their own lives but of life.