English, Department of



Katrina Ruth

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 27 (1996) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2018 (27)


In October 1857, George Eliot began her first full-length major novel, Adam Bede. Having just completed her last 'scene' - 'Janet's Repentance' - from Scenes of Clerical Life, she decided to use a 'large canvas' for her next endeavour, an endeavour which would be only the beginning of a series of successful novels. In a letter to her publisher, who was expecting another 'scene' that would continue the success of the series of pastoral stories about the lives of clergymen, Eliot wrote to John Blackwood, claiming that: 'my new story haunts me a great deal. ... It will be a country story - full of the breath of cows and the scent of hay'.2 Thus the novel Adam Bede was begun and with it Eliot created a plot where the intrigue involved not another rustic clergyman, but this time a rustic butter-maker. The engaging character Hetty Sorrel who wants much, much more for herself than the farming community of Hayslope can ever offer her is a fascinating and tragic figure set in the midst of a community where quiet acceptance of one's lot in life and where concern for others are expected standards of behaviour.

Another standard of behaviour, taken more seriously by Eliot herself than by the members of the community of Hayslope, is the idea of sympathy, or mutual concern for others. Highly critical of egoism, the great Victorian vice, Eliot created her own philosophy which she would later name her 'doctrine of sympathy'. This 'doctrine' came out of Eliot's own personal belief in the new philosophy from Germany, 'the Higher Criticism', which emphasized the love of other humans over the love of God, a divine being. Once ardently devoted to the traditional Anglican Christian faith, Eliot chose this new belief and adhered to it with a religious fervour. Thus, the importance placed upon human interaction and true human love for others was for Eliot nothing short of a religious truth. Anyone who fell prey to self-indulgence to the exclusion of all others, was, in Eliot's 'religion of humanity', (her own name for her understanding of 'the Higher Criticism') nothing short of a sinner. What makes Hetty Sorrel such a tragic figure within this dialectic is that she is truly incapable of sympathetically interacting with others. This study implements the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan in order to understand the extent to which Hetty is enveloped in her narcissistic, mirror-image love of self to the total exclusion of all others. I will also claim that Hetty is tragically only capable of having an 'imaginary' relationship with herself, via her mirrors. All other relationships she experiences throughout the novel are imaginary as well.